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How CIA ‘failed’ its Iranian spies: Reuters report finds ‘negligence, faulty communications’

Titled ‘America’s Throwaway Spies’, the report probes the US intelligence agency's approach towards civilians it hires as spies, and how 'flawed' systems often lead to their capture.

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New Delhi: A year-long investigative analysis by Reuters reporters Joel Schectman and Bozorgmehr Sharafedin, published Thursday, has found a pattern of “negligence” by a “careless” Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in its handling of Iranian informants.

The report titled ‘America’s Throwaway Spies’ probes the US intelligence agency’s alleged lack of accountability towards the civilians it hires as part of its network of spies, and traces the “faulty” systems that often lead to their capture.

Calling it an “unprecedented firsthand account”, the report claims that many Iranian informants, once caught, were left to fend for themselves. Some of the informants also suspected they were “sold out” by the agency itself.

Reuters spoke to six Iranians convicted of espionage by the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad government between 2009 and 2015, studied government records, and spoke with former US intelligence officials.

According to the report, the men were jailed as part of a “counterintelligence purge”  that started in 2009, with Iran claiming to have caught dozens of CIA informants.

The investigation found that more than 350 fake websites were used by the CIA to communicate with its informants. “Each fake website was assigned to only one spy in order to limit exposure of the entire network in case any single agent was captured,” two former CIA officials told Reuters.

But the probe also found how “the CIA made identifying those sites easy”.

Also read: What is Havana syndrome, mysterious illness that struck CIA chief’s team member on India visit

‘Flawed’ communication channels

These fake websites, the report found, used the “same secret messaging system” and many of them had sequential IP addresses. Features like these, the report further said, meant that the “discovery of a single spy using one of these websites” allowed Iranian authorities to “uncover additional pages used by other CIA informants”.

“Once those sites were identified, nabbing the operatives using them would have been simple: The Iranians just had to wait and see who showed up. In essence, the CIA used the same row of bushes for its informants worldwide. Any attentive espionage rival would have been able to spot them all,” added the report.

According to the former US intelligence officials Reuters spoke with the CIA “wasn’t fully aware” that its covert messaging system was compromised until 2013.

But the report also quoted a former CIA official as saying that these “mass-produced” sites were for operatives the CIA considered “not worth the investment of advanced tradecraft”.

What happened to the ‘spies’

The six Iranians Reuters spoke to served prison terms ranging from “five to ten years”. Gholamreza Hosseini, one of those convicted in 2010, spent a decade at the Evin Prison in Tehran. Several years of confinement and “extended torture” affected his communication abilities, even with his close ones.

“When they ask me a question, I feel like I’m back in the interrogation room,” he has been quoted as saying.

Among the rest, four, including Hosseini, stayed back in Iran, while two others have now become “stateless refugees”, with no help in sight from either friends, family or their former employer.

According to the report, many had agreed to become informants for the prospect of settlement in the US — a dream that was far-fetched, since the CIA is allotted only “100 visas a year to offer as a carrot to its spies throughout the world”, according to three former intelligence officers interviewed by Reuters.

“If people paid the price of trusting us enough to share information and they paid a penalty, then we have failed morally,” former CIA counterintelligence chief James Olson was quoted as saying.

Also read: How Xi Jinping’s ‘mole hunt’ led to CIA losing dozens of Chinese informants


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