Commentary Magazine


The Ayatollahs, the CIA, and the LA Times Leak: Part II

Yesterday, I asked whether a leak published on the front page of the Los Angeles Times in 2002 might have had something to do with the recent arrests in Tehran of four Iranian-Americans on espionage charges. What direct evidence can I adduce on this score?

The answer is: none. The evidence is all circumstantial and indirect. But it is highly suggestive nonetheless.

To begin with, Iran has a significant diplomatic and intelligence presence in the United States. The same LA Times piece revealing the CIA program to recruit Iranian émigrés reported that Iranian intelligence was not only active here but that it paid careful attention to the émigré community. The LA Times story was thus, to a near certainty, picked up by Iranian officials; and it is inconceivable that a report detailing a CIA operation with such specificity would not then have been given wide notice inside the Iranian foreign-policy and intelligence establishment.

The Iranian Islamic regime, it is important to bear in mind, has a peculiar relationship to the CIA. One of its founding myths is that the American spy agency was a major force propping up the old regime. After the Shah’s fall, the Islamic revolutionaries were quick to find the hidden hand of the CIA everywhere, and held it responsible for every conceivable ill that befell Iran, from failed crops to the war with Iraq.

The irony, of course, is that the CIA presence in Iran at the time of the revolution was virtually non-existent, and the U.S. government had only the dimmest understanding of the society, including especially the Islamic opposition. It is widely believed that in the intervening years the agency has not succeeded in penetrating the Iranian government. Apart from what can be gleaned from reading Iranian newspapers, the CIA’s picture of the internal political situation is said to be close to blank.

But reality, at least with regard to the condition of American intelligence services, has never exactly been a strong suit of Iran’s theocrats. The arrest of four Iranian-Americans on trumped up charges of espionage is testimony to the ease with which their fantasies merge with their extortionate, hostage-seizing brand of realpolitik.

The two most significant questions that arise from this leak episode concern not them but us. The first concerns the sources in and around the CIA who disclosed the classified Iranian-émigré recruitment program to the LA Times. What could have possibly motivated them? The second concerns the editors of the LA Times. By putting out a story that would inevitably endanger an entire class of Americans already under intense suspicion in the eyes of the ayatollahs, were they subordinating their civic obligations to their journalistic ambitions?