CIA sought Iranians

Secret `Brain Drain' program recruited key officials to defect

December 09, 2007|By Greg Miller | Greg Miller,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- The CIA launched a secret program in 2005 designed to degrade Iran's nuclear weapons program by persuading key officials to defect, an effort that has prompted a "handful" of significant departures, current and former U.S. intelligence officials familiar with the operation say.

The previously undisclosed program, which CIA officials dubbed "the Brain Drain," part of a major intelligence push against Iran ordered by the White House two years ago, was put in place under then-CIA Director Porter J. Goss.

Intelligence gathered as part of that push provided much of the basis for a U.S. report released last week that concluded that the Islamic regime had halted its nuclear weapons work in 2003. Officials declined to say how much of that intelligence could be attributed to the CIA program aimed at recruiting defectors.

Although the CIA effort on defections has been aimed in part at gaining information about Iran's nuclear capabilities, its goal has been to undermine Iran's emerging atomic energy capabilities by plucking key scientists, military officers and other personnel from its nuclear roster.

Encouraging scientists and military officers to defect has been a hallmark of CIA efforts against an array of targets, including the Soviet Union and Iraq. But officials said those programs did not generally seek to degrade the target country's capabilities, suggesting that U.S. officials believe that Iran's nuclear know-how is still thin enough that it can be depleted.

The program has had limited success. Officials said that fewer than six well-placed Iranians have defected and that none has been in position to provide comprehensive information on Iran's nuclear program.

The CIA effort on defectors reflects the urgency with which the U.S. government has sought to slow down Iran's nuclear advances, as well as the importance U.S. officials attach to finding human sources who can help fill in intelligence gaps left by high-tech means of collection such as satellites and electronic eavesdropping equipment.

It was described by officials on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the effort.

A CIA spokesman declined to comment on the effort to lure defectors, saying that "the agency does not comment on these kinds of allegations as a matter of course."

The agency compiled a list of dozens of people to target as potential defectors based on a single criterion, according to a former official involved in the operation: "Who, if removed from the program, would have the biggest impact on slowing or stopping their progress?"

In the two years since it was launched, the program has led to carefully orchestrated extractions of a small group of Iranian officials who operated in the mid- to upper tiers of the Islamic regime's nuclear programs.

None of those who defected were considered essential to the nuclear program.

"Did they have replacements for these people? Any country would have," the former official involved in the operation said. "But we did slow the program."

Officials declined to discuss the defectors' whereabouts, or details regarding the methods used to approach them. The former senior U.S. intelligence official said potential defectors have not been approached directly by the CIA but through other contacts.

Often, the former official said, there are as many as "three degrees of separation" between agency personnel and those targeted for approach, and that each of those interim contacts had to be thoroughly vetted before a planned approach was approved. Those who have left Iran have been debriefed and relocated either by the CIA or with the help of allied intelligence services, the former official said.

Greg Miller writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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