A few years ago we read a report of the death of an Indian spy who defected to the CIA only to be abandoned by the American spy agency. Turns out that wasn’t an exception for the CIA when it comes to foreign agents. Reuters have been investigating six cases of Iranian agents recruited and abandoned by the CIA for over a year now and has detailed its findings in this report. As a result, the CIA is finding it hard to recruit new agents or informants in what is arguably its most important field area – Iran. To put things in context:
“These failures continue to haunt the agency years later. In a series of internal cables last year, CIA leadership warned that it had lost most of its network of spies in Iran and that sloppy tradecraft continues to endanger the agency’s mission worldwide, the New York Times reported.
The CIA considers Iran one of its most difficult targets. Ever since Iranian students seized the American embassy in Tehran in 1979, the United States has had no diplomatic presence in the country. CIA officers are instead forced to recruit potential agents outside Iran or through online connections. The thin local presence leaves U.S. intelligence at a disadvantage amid events such as the protests now sweeping Iran over the death of a woman arrested for violating the country’s religious dress code.
Four former intelligence officers interviewed by Reuters said the agency is willing to take bigger risks with sources when it comes to spying on Iran. Curbing the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions has long been a priority in Washington. Tehran insists its nuclear efforts are solely for energy needs.
“This is a very serious, very serious intelligence goal to penetrate Iran’s nuclear weapons program. You don’t get a much higher priority than that,” said James Lawler, a former CIA officer whose focus included weapons of mass destruction and Iran. “So when they do the risk-versus-gain analysis, you’ve got to consider the incredible amount of gain.””
But how exactly did the CIA mess things up:
“The CIA created hundreds of rudimentary news, health and sports websites. Hidden within each one was a secret messaging application that the agency used to communicate with a single informant.
That messaging app was unusual – and easy to spot – by simply right-clicking on any of these sites to examine its computer code. The CIA’s coding contained obvious descriptions of the secret functions built into these sites, including words like “message,” “compose” and “password.”
The CIA was sloppy in other ways. It purchased much of the online space for these websites in bulk. That meant that many of these sites had sequential numerical identifiers, or IP addresses, much like houses on the same street.
Thus, if a foreign intelligence service caught a spy who had been using one of these websites, they could easily find similar sites by looking at neighboring IP addresses and checking for the telltale coding.
Once the sites were identified, nabbing informants using them would have been easy. Spy catchers had only to watch and wait to see who showed up to use them.”
The report details one such case of an industrial engineer with access to Iran’s nuclear power plants first recruited by the CIA only to get caught by the Iranian authorities and spend ten years in prison.
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