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The Price of One Leak

Leaks of vital U.S. intelligence secrets can get Americans killed. They can also place Americans in a great deal of danger.

As of yesterday, Iran has seized four Iranian-Americans and charged them with spying. They are Haleh Esfandiari of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; Kian Tajbakhsh, an urban-planning consultant associated with George Soros’s Open Society Institute; Parnaz Azima, a journalist who works for the American-financed Radio Farda; and Ali Shakeri, a “peace activist” from the Center for Citizen Peacebuilding at the University of California, Irvine. In addition, Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who is reported to have traveled to Iran on private business, has been missing since March.

Do these developments have anything to do with a 2002 leak about a highly classified U.S. intelligence program?

On January 15, 2002, under the headline “CIA Looks to Los Angeles for Would-Be Iranian Spies,” the Los Angeles Times disclosed on its front page that the CIA was recruiting Iranian-Americans in southern California, home to the largest concentration of Iranian émigrés in the United States. According to the paper, the agency was “offering cash for useful information” to Iranian-Americans who “have business connections [in Iran] or relatives in [a] position to provide valuable information from inside the largely impenetrable republic.” The article went on to give more details:

Former CIA officers said the agency is combing this community for “access agents,” those who may not have direct knowledge of events in Iran but can get information through connections. . . .

“What you really want is these people to get to family members still in Iran,” said a former officer familiar with the Los Angeles effort. “If family members trust each other, they’ll tell you things you can’t know otherwise, can’t get [from satellites]. If you’re really lucky, you might recruit somebody involved in the nuclear-weapons program.”

CIA officers have to disclose their identities when approaching U.S. citizens or permanent residents for information. But foreign travelers and those on temporary visas can be approached undercover.

“You can say, ‘I run a consulting firm in Los Angeles that wants to bring energy companies into Iran when it opens up,’” a former officer said. Eventually, he added, “you might get to the point where you think you can break cover,” meaning reveal CIA affiliation and simply ask the contact to spy.

A new informant might be put on the CIA payroll at $5,000 a month, the officer said. “If the spy were really good, the sky’s the limit”. . . .

The risks for informants are considerable. Foreign travelers in Iran, particularly those from the United States, are followed closely by [Iran’s] intelligence service, MOIS, former CIA officials said. Spies caught by the [Islamic] Republic face severe punishment, including execution.

What public interest was served by the publication of such a sensitive story in the Los Angeles Times, and whatever that interest was conceived to be, was it weighed against the damage that would be done, including to particular individuals? At the time, the CIA would not comment, other than to note that “disclosure of such a program ‘is not helpful to U.S. national security.’” And the revelation was promptly—and conveniently—forgotten by the rest of American press, and today it is not discussed at all.

But the leak is sure to have resonated resoundingly in the minds of the ayatollahs, who have long been obsessed with the supposedly ubiquitous threat posed by the CIA to their regime. Are four, maybe five, Americans now paying the price for our media’s reckless disregard for the imperative of secrecy in the critical realm of intelligence?


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