Contributor Perspectives

The Asghari Case: Defection and Damage Control

Mar 14, 2007 | 19:52 GMT
By Fred Burton Ali Reza Asghari, a former Iranian deputy defense minister and Pasdaran commander, went missing from Istanbul several weeks ago. After his disappearance — which Turkish authorities say could have been as long ago as December but was not reported to them by Iran until early February — Arab newspapers began to insinuate that Mossad and the CIA were responsible for having had him abducted or killed. These claims were echoed by Iranian officials. Last week, however, the Saudi-owned Asharq Al-Awsat independent newspaper reported that Asghari had defected to the U.S. government while traveling in Turkey. This report was confirmed by the Washington Post, which quoted a senior U.S. intelligence official March 8 as saying Asghari was cooperating voluntarily — and fully — with Western intelligence agencies. The United States and Iran have been locked in a covert "intelligence war" that has been raging for some time now. And, as in the Cold War, this war likely will involve the use of tactics ranging from assassinations and clandestine operations to propaganda, disinformation and the use of military proxies. Defectors and agents of influence also have been a feature of such wars in the past — which brings us back to the Asghari case. The significance of Asghari's disappearance stems entirely from his background. Not only did he serve as Iran's deputy defense minister under former President Mohammed Khatami, but he also is a retired general who was a commander in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in the 1980s and 1990s. Therefore, the Iranians clearly have worried that he might be providing Western intelligence agencies with a wealth of information on the capabilities of the Iranian armed forces, and possibly helping to improve their understanding of the relationship between the IRGC (or "Pasdaran," in Farsi) and Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Iraqi Shiite groups such as the Mehdi Army and the Badr Brigade. Given his background, he also would be in a position to shed light on the Pasdaran's clandestine abilities abroad and perhaps identify other Iranian intelligence officers. In other words, Asghari could prove an important (and timely) catch for U.S. intelligence, especially if he had been working with the United States as an "agent in place" for a long period. In an intelligence war — or just at routine levels of good old-fashioned espionage — the defection of a figure like Asghari can prove useful in more ways than one. To understand this case and its potential twists and turns a bit better, let's take a look at the definitions and specific stages of the intelligence process surrounding defections: vetting, extraction and debriefings. Defectors To begin at the beginning, a "defector" is a person who abandons allegiance to one country in order to serve another. Like other intelligence sources, there are two basic types of defectors: those who are sought, or recruited, and those who volunteer. Sources who are recruited are approached by intelligence agencies because they are in a certain position in government or society and have access to what is deemed important information. They are people who can provide the information to satisfy key intelligence requirements. While some sources might leave their native countries soon after being recruited, there have been many cases when it was found, after defection, that the person had worked as either an agent in place or an "agent of influence" — someone who can help to shape government policy, public opinion or even military decisions — for the recruiting country. Such agents can stay in place for years before "coming in from the cold," or physically defecting, to the recruiting country. Well-positioned agents in place provide unique insight into the thinking, mindset and planning of the leadership of the government on which they have been spying. They provide crucial insight that cannot be gathered through technical means. In other words, you can use technology to take a picture of a man or listen to his telephone conversations, but those things might not provide you with information or even very good clues about his thoughts and plans. That kind of information comes only from human sources with the right access. The second type of defector, the one who volunteers, is called a "walk-in" — because, frequently, they literally do walk into the embassy or consulate of a foreign country and volunteer their services. Walk-ins are problematic because they often appear when they are least expected; therefore, intelligence-gathering operations involving walk-ins are often hectic affairs that must be quickly conceived and implemented. Furthermore, if the person who walks in is not careful, their very presence at a foreign embassy can out them to the host country's counterintelligence forces (which can be expected to be monitoring the embassy). That makes it difficult to retain a walk-in as an agent in place, and adds to the challenges of getting him out of the country when needed for an in-depth debriefing. However, it can be done: CIA officer Aldrich Ames was a walk-in to the Soviet Embassy in Washington but the KGB (and its successor, the FSB) managed to work him as an agent in place for nearly 10 years before he was detected and arrested. A highly placed source like Ames is a dream come true for an intelligence officer — and the worst nightmare for a counterintelligence service. Vetting the source — to affirm whether he or she is genuine — is an important part of all espionage recruitment operations, and defectors are not excepted from this rule. Many walk-ins turn out to be "fabricators," "dangles" (people sent into the embassy in an order to identify the nondeclared intelligence officers stationed there) or "double agents" (those who appear to be defectors but who actually are used to spread disinformation and to determine how the opponent's intelligence service functions). While there is not much danger of a source who is targeted for recruitment being a fabricator, there is a danger of that person being a dangle, or a double agent. Vetting of both the source and the information provided by the source is essentially a continuous process; the defector will be closely monitored (and subjected to polygraph exams) throughout his period of employment. Extraction Once a spy has been identified, recruited and initially vetted — and found to be of value — the intelligence service must determine the best way to use that person. As noted, the source might be left in place to collect additional information, or whisked out of the country for a debriefing. Either way, the source must eventually be extracted from the country in a clandestine fashion. This extraction process is sometimes called an "exfiltration" — the opposite of an infiltration. While some extractions can be dramatic, not all of them are Hollywood productions involving submarines and special operations forces. Because such operations are not only dangerous but also costly, they are carried out only under extreme circumstances. Most extractions are intended to be far more low-key: Quite often, the sneakiest way to commit an operational act is to do it in a mundane fashion, in plain sight. Therefore, it is far more common for defectors to leave their home countries under the ruse of taking a vacation or, as with Asghari, for business reasons. (That said, people are still occasionally smuggled out of embassy parking garages in the trunks of a cars.) Time is an important consideration in extractions: Generally, the more time one has to plan and execute an extraction, the smoother and more low-key it will be. Location is also critical. Getting a person out of an open society is much easier than getting them out of a repressive society with strict travel regulations. Once a defector gets to a third country for "vacation" or to "attend a conference," they can be picked up and spirited away. But again, time is a critical factor: If a person is watched closely by his government and cannot stray far from a security officer, or "minder," those planning the extraction will have significantly less time to operate than they otherwise would. Once the defector is in custody, he can be furnished with false documentation and secreted away in much the same way a subject is in an extraordinary rendition. In fact, much of the U.S. government's expertise in handling renditions was derived from its operations to extract defectors. It is even easier if the third country is friendly to the extracting country. For instance, in the Asghari case, Turkey is known to cooperate with U.S. intelligence and the presence of (heavily trafficked) U.S. air bases in the country would make it quite simple to get a defector from a third country out of Turkey without being detected. Debriefing Debriefing a defector can be a lengthy process that often involves specialists from a number of government agencies. In the case of Asghari, the team likely would include members from the Defense Intelligence Agency and Special Operations Command (given Asghari's military background), and the FBI and State Department, since he might have historical information regarding Iranian-sponsored attacks by Hezbollah and other proxies, and perhaps even information pertaining to future attacks. During the course of a debriefing, the defector would be given a complete medical and psychological exam. The psychological team often can provide important guidance on the defector's psyche and on the best approaches to use in debriefing that person — and, just as important, subjects to raise and pitfalls to avoid. Vetting is as important during the debriefing as in other stages of the process. This not only helps to determine if the defector is a double agent, but also can be useful in determining when the defector has run out of useful information. (At this stage, many sources will begin to fabricate information in an effort to make themselves appear to be of lasting value.) The defector likely will endure several polygraph examinations during this phase. The host country's reaction to the defection also will be factored in to the vetting equation, and other sources will be tasked to determine whether he was a double agent. Once the defector has been completely debriefed, he probably will be resettled and employed by the government as a consultant — someone authorities can turn to in the future with questions about personalities and events relevant to his background. He also might lead training classes and seminars to teach U.S. and allied personnel about the organization and operations of his former agency. Of course, given the value of an asset like Asghari, the intelligence services of numerous U.S. allies undoubtedly are clamoring for information from him, and even seeking access in order to conduct their own debriefings. Opportunities With the United States and Iran already engaged in an intelligence war, the defection of a figure like Asghari doubtless has provided Washington with a windfall of information regarding the Iranian defense establishment and Pasdaran. However, the Iranian reaction to the defection also could provide an opportunity to gather even more intelligence — especially if Washington had the time to pre-position additional surveillance assets. This, by the way, is very likely the reason Iranian authorities did not report Asghari's disappearance to the Turkish government for several weeks. Regardless of whether the defector was thought to be already in enemy hands, Tehran would have wanted to keep its reaction as low-key as possible and information about Asghari's disappearance away from a "hostile" (meaning U.S.-allied) intelligence service until Iranian officials had a handle on the situation. From the U.S. perspective, the immediate follow-on questions and responses would have followed a set pattern. For instance, Washington would be monitoring Iranian diplomatic and intelligence traffic carefully. How was Asghari's disappearance reported internally? Who did the Iranians contact in Istanbul and Ankara? Were messages sent out to other Iranian missions in Europe or in New York? Have diplomats received any sudden recall orders? Physically, the United States would use surveillance teams against the Iranian diplomats in Turkey to determine such things as: Who went looking for Asghari? Who in the Turkish government did the Iranians meet with? Did they mobilize any Iranian businessmen or students to assist their search? Such things could provide valuable insight into the Iranian intelligence network in Turkey. In the wake of the defection, the United States and others doubtless have been watching for other sudden and unexpected departures of personnel from Iranian diplomatic missions worldwide. Such departures could indicate that an officer is with the Pasdaran or another intelligence agency that the leadership in Tehran believes might have been compromised by Asghari. The Iranians will have to do a thorough damage-control investigation to determine every secret to which Asghari had access. They most assuredly will downplay the significance of Washington's intelligence score by making public claims that Asghari was of minimal importance and had no access to current information. However, in the end, the most crucial question Tehran will need to answer is, "How long has Asghari been working for the Americans?" If the answer is "a long time," the damage to Iran's national security could be enormous.
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