Sunday, February 13, 2005

Telegraph | News | Teheran 'executed CIA's spy network 10 years ago'

America's spy network in Iran was exposed more than 10 years ago and about 50 of its local agents were executed or jailed in a devastating setback for United States intelligence operations in the Islamic state, former CIA officials have disclosed.

"The Iranian agents, who included senior military officers, had been relaying information to their handlers at the CIA's office in Frankfurt, using messages written in invisible ink on the back of letters posted from Iran.

So-called 'secret writing' was also used to relay requests and instructions to them from CIA officials in Frankfurt.

The spies' letters were posted to a small number of addresses in Germany, and Iranian counter-intelligence officials eventually became suspicious. 'Once they had one agent, and they recovered the letters that had come in to him and found out where he was sending his letters, they quickly identified others that fitted that profile,' said a former CIA operative in the Middle East.

The collapse of the US spy ring underscores the difficulty faced by Western intelligence in gaining accurate information from within Iran, most notably about the true purpose of its partly clandestine nuclear programme.

Last month New Yorker magazine claimed that the Pentagon had dispatched special forces to scout for possible military targets inside Iran, in an attempt to locate the key clandestine sites for the country's nuclear programme, having lost confidence in the ability of the CIA to gather information.

US officials disputed details of the report, but did not deny that the Defence Department was seeking intelligence of its own.

As a virulent opponent of America and sponsor of Islamic extremist groups, such as Hizbollah, Iran has been a high priority for US intelligence for decades. At the time that the spy ring was exposed the regime had already launched its covert nuclear programme.

President George W Bush has recently ordered a wide-ranging review of its latest intelligence assessments on Iran, to be prepared by the end of next month. Two new documents, one a political analysis of the power of the ruling clerics and the other focusing on Teheran's nuclear, biological and chemical capabilities, are intended to provide the basis for Washington's policy making.

The events in Iran in the late 1980s or early 1990s - officials interviewed in yesterday's Los Angeles Times did not recall the exact date - were a painful lesson for American intelligence chiefs.

The failed operation has come to light as part of the continuing battle within Washington over the role of the CIA. The agency's critics regard it as an inefficient organisation that failed miserably in its work in Iraq, and which was headed by "old-guard" opponents of the Bush administration until a shake-up by its new director, Porter Goss.

Richard Perle, a former Pentagon adviser and notable CIA critic, made the first public reference to the Iran setback during testimony to Congress this month. He blamed the CIA for the discovery of its agents, referring to the "terrible setback that we suffered in Iran a few years ago when, in a display of unbelievably careless management, we put pressure on agents to report with greater frequency and didn't provide improved communications".

He said that Iranian counter-intelligence officials noticed a "surge in traffic" as the agents increased their reporting. Anonymously, former CIA officials confirmed the crackdown, but insisted that the reason for it was not known.

The CIA refused to comment publicly on details of the case, but rejected the thrust of Mr Perle's comments.

Although the use of invisible ink harks back to a bygone era, modern forms of communication, such as e-mail and satellite telephones can also be intercepted. Saddam Hussein's regime executed hundreds of US agents in Iraq in the mid-1990s, many of whom were equipped with satellite communications systems, after a CIA-backed coup plot was uncovered.

Iran is what is known in intelligence circles as "denied" territory for the US. There is no CIA station there and American spy chiefs have to rely on running their limited operations inside the country from abroad.

The last-published CIA report on Iran concluded in November that the ruling mullahs "continued to vigorously pursue indigenous programmes to produce nuclear, chemical and biological weapons". Iran denies that it is working on weapons of mass destruction and insists that its nuclear activities are for civilian energy purposes.

David Albright, the president of the Institute for Science and International Security, who has studied Iran's nuclear programme, said he believed that Iran wanted to develop the "capability" for nuclear weapons, but the conclusion that they were building one was "all inferential".

The Bush administration will not take detailed public positions on Iran until the two updated reports are completed in the next few weeks, officials said. Administration critics say, however, that the drumbeat of comments about Iran's nuclear plans and series of intelligence reviews echoes the build-up to war in Iraq during 2002.