Did Hizballah Beat the CIA at Its Own Techno-Surveillance Game? (2011)
April 5, 2017
The CIA found itself in some rough waters in the Middle East last week. On Thursday, an influential member of Iran’s parliament announced that the Islamic republic had arrested 12 “CIA agents” who had allegedly been targeting Iran’s military and its nuclear program. The lawmaker didn’t give the nationality of the agents, but the presumption is that they were Iranians recruited to spy for the CIA. The agency hasn’t yet commented, but from what I’ve heard it was a serious compromise, one which the CIA is still trying to get to the bottom of.
Even more curious was the flap in Lebanon. In June, Hizballah’s secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah announced that the movement had arrested two of its own members as CIA spies. But it wasn’t until last week that the story got traction in Washington. The CIA confirmed that operations in Beirut had been compromised but declined to offer details. As in the case of the alleged Iranian debacle, it’s no doubt still doing a “damage assessment” — a process that can take years. Even then, it will be difficult to determine exactly what happened.
From what I’ve been able to piece together, Hizballah aggressively went after the CIA in Lebanon using telephone “link analysis.” That’s a form of electronic intelligence gathering that uses software capable of combing through trillions of gigabytes of phone-call data in search of anomalies — prepaid cell phones calling each other, series of brief calls, analysis of a cell-phone company’s GPS tracking. Geeks who do this for a living understand how it works, and I’ll take their word for it.
But it’s not the technology that’s remarkable, as much as the idea that it’s being employed by Hizballah, a militant Islamic organization better known for acts of terror than for electronic counterespionage. That’s another reminder that Hizballah has effectively supplanted the Lebanese state, taking over police and security functions that in other countries are the exclusively the domain of sovereign authority. Indeed, since Nasrallah’s announcement of catching the CIA agents, no Lebanese authority has questioned why Hizballah, rather than Lebanese intelligence, would be responsible for catching alleged spies for foreign powers in Lebanon. Nobody bothers to ask what would be a pointless question; everyone knows that when it comes to military and security functions, Hizballah might as well be the state.
(Watch a video of Hizballah’s theme park.)
Since I served in Beirut during the ’80s, I’ve been struck by the slow but inexorable shift of sovereign power to Hizballah. Not only does the movement have the largest military, with nearly 50,000 rockets pointed at Israel; it has de facto control over Lebanon’s spies, both military and civilian. It green-lights senior appointments. Hizballah also is wired into all the databases, keeping track of who enters the country, who leaves, where they stay, whom they see and call. It’s capable of monitoring every server in the country. It can even tap into broadband communications like Skype. And, of course, it doesn’t bother with such legal niceties as warrants. If foreigners are going to be caught spy in Lebanon, it will be Hizballah that catches them.
I have a feeling last week’s events bodes ill for U.S. intelligence because it suggests that anyone capable from organized crime to terrorist groups can greatly enhance their counterintelligence capability by simply buying off-the-shelf equipment and the know-how to use it. Like a lot of people, I thought it would be easy coasting at the end of the Cold War after the KGB was defanged. Instead, globalization and the rapid spread of sophisticated technologies have opened an espionage Pandora’s box.
By Robert Baer Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2011
Find this story at 30 November 2011
© 2016 Time Inc.
The Iranian-Saudi Proxy Wars Come to Mali (2015)
August 26, 2015
The Iranian-Saudi Proxy Wars Come to Mali
In schools, mosques, and cultural centers, Shiites and Sunnis are battling for African hearts and minds.
BAMAKO, Mali — In a country where two-thirds of the adults are illiterate, it is a privileged few who have the chance to study at the Mustafa International School.
Located in the western suburbs of Bamako, a few blocks from the U.S. Embassy, the college-level seminary has just 180 students — 150 men and 30 women. They engage in an intensive curriculum that encompasses theology, history, philosophy, Arabic, Farsi, and world religions. They work in the school’s computer suite, equipped with 12 desktop computers, and get three meals a day at the seminary’s expense. And they do it all under the watchful eyes of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, former supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose likeness gazes down on them from his portrait, which hangs above the bookshelves of the school’s library.
These young students are part of Mali’s tiny Shiite community: a group of about 10,000 families nationally, in a country where the Sunni majority makes up an estimated 95 percent of the population of 15 million.
They’re also the stuff of Saudi nightmares.
Historically, West Africa has had a tolerant approach to religious differences, shunning — at least until recently — the sort of Sunni-Shiite sectarian rivalries that have plagued the Middle East in favor of a patchwork of beliefs that incorporate Sufism, Maliki Islam, and traditional animist practices. But Mali — home to seminaries with ties to Iran, like the Mustafa International School, and where diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks this summer reveal that Saudi Arabia is scrambling to fund its own competing schools, mosques, and cultural projects — provides a case study in how the enmity between Sunni Islam and Shiite Islam may be being spread, via Iranian and Saudi proxies, to places thousands of miles from the Middle East.
Unlike most of Mali’s private schools and universities, which charge hefty fees, the Mustafa International School selects students from outside the capital and gives them free room and board. Few of the students hail from Mali’s elite families; rather, they are selected via tests administered to Shiite youth across the country. The highest achievers are offered the chance to continue their study in Iran.
The school is able to afford such generous support for its students because it is backed by an Iranian university in Qom, a city considered holy by Shiite Muslims and famed for its Islamic learning. The state-run University of Qom provides funding and sets the school’s curriculum, which covers various schools of Islamic thought, as well as Shiite jurisprudence.
“The teaching is very good,” said Adam N’Diaye, a 22-year-old student at the facility who recently converted from Sunnism. He aims to become a teacher when he graduates. A quick survey of his classmates revealed that most of his colleagues are aiming to become imams and missionaries.
It’s unclear how many schools and seminaries in Mali have ties to the Islamic Republic or just how close these ties are. There’s also no direct evidence to indicate that schools like the Mustafa International School are necessarily part of a larger effort by the Iranian government to make Shiite converts. Officials at the Iranian Cultural Center in Bamako declined to give any details about the number of educational institutions to which they have ties; the Saudi-based paper Al Yaum has previously reported that the cultural center runs 10 schools in Mali. Other sources place the number around 13.
Iran and Mali have a warm, if limited, relationship. When Iran’s then-president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, visited Bamako and Timbuktu in 2010, he spoke in glowing terms about solidarity between the two countries and signed a raft of agreements on development aid and Iranian investment in agriculture and extractive industries. The Mustafa International School’s director, Mohamed Diabaté, who studied in Iran and maintains links with clerics there, makes appearances on Malian television to talk about his understanding of Islam. (He argues that the Tidjaniya school of Sufism common across West Africa has roots in Shiite, rather than Sunni, teaching.)
The presence of Shiism here isn’t something Saudi Arabia is taking lightly. Among the nearly 60,000 diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks on June 19 are a slew of documents detailing the kingdom’s fear of a “rising tide of Shiism” resulting from proselytization on the part of Saudi Arabia’s rival in the Middle East, Iran. Cables detailing specific Iranian charities, schools, and media outlets from Kazakhstan to Spain — as well as vague fears of “Shiite activities” elsewhere — show that Saudi diplomats see Shiism not only to be a vile heresy, but a movement inseparably tied to Iranian political clout. And even the smallest Shiite community is considered a threat.
“Despite the Iranian Embassy’s efforts [in Mali], there hasn’t been a lot of uptake, but it is possible that their thinking could spread in the future in a broader way and their Shiite activities could gain a base,” reads a cable from the Saudi Embassy in Bamako to the Foreign Ministry in Riyadh in early 2009. It recommends funding rival projects — mosques, schools, cultural programs, proselytization, and summer courses — to “strengthen the growing position of the [Saudi] kingdom” in Mali and promote Saudi Arabia’s image as “the protector of the noble Islamic faith.” It adds that this should be done “in a way that promotes peaceful coexistence between different ideologies and counters the Shiite spread.”
Mali offers a potentially rich source of converts to Shiism. “People in Mali love the family of the Prophet,” Diabaté said. The Tidjaniya Sufi order, which has a long history throughout West Africa, honors members of the Prophet Mohammed’s family as pure, devout individuals. It’s a small leap from that to the belief, fundamental to Shiism, that members of the Prophet’s family should have taken over leadership of the Islamic community upon his death. It’s a link that has not gone unnoticed in Riyadh.
“Iran is exploiting the Sufis’ love for the family of the Prophet in order to show Iran as a great Islamic nation that is an enemy of the infidels and supports all the Muslims,” reads the cable.
“Many Malians don’t realize the truth of Shiite thinking: fanatical, racist, and the enemy of other Islamic doctrines.”
But though the cables ring of paranoia, the notion that Mali’s tiny Shiite community has outsized political significance and links to Tehran seems to have found traction among some Sunni locals.
“There are not even 1 percent of the population who are Shiite in Mali. But there is a political presence, run by the Iranians,” said Mahmoud Dicko, the president of the High Islamic Council of Mali and one of the country’s most powerful clerics.
Dicko was among 30 senior Malian clerics who signed a 2008 open letter in support of influential Egyptian Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s outspoken stance against Shiite evangelism. The letter warned of “the dangers of the rising tide of Shiism,” which aims to “turn Sunni societies Shiite, undermine their states, and impose Persian hegemony over them.”
Mali has raw memories of religious conflict. In 2012, an alliance of Tuareg separatists and Islamists linked to al Qaeda invaded the country’s northern half and imposed sharia law before being ousted by French forces. But a low-level insurgency has been rumbling on ever since. Militants have targeted the Malian army, U.N. peacekeepers, and foreign aid workers with drive-by shootings and roadside bombs. The extremist group Ansar Dine claimed responsibility for a deadly attack on a popular restaurant in Bamako in March and the killing of three soldiers in a village near the border with Mauritania in June.
Despite this, for most Malians the phenomenon of religious extremism is a foreign imposition. The fighters involved in the events of 2012 were from outside Mali, and the violence was an exception in a long history of religious tolerance here. Across West Africa, Sunni Islam, Sufism, and traditional animist practices have rubbed shoulders in relative peace for centuries.
One of Mali’s most prominent Baptists, Pastor Mohammed Yattara, is open about his apostasy, something that would be unthinkable across the Middle East and North Africa. Yattara converted from Islam to Christianity when he was 16. When he told his family he had become a Christian, his father disowned him and threw him out of the house. Yet the two stayed in touch until his father’s death, and Yattara’s act of leaving his faith has had few consequences for his personal security.
Among the Muslim majority, Sufi traditions and animist rituals remain important elements of religious practice. In poorer communities, few imams speak Arabic or are educated in the finer points of Islamic philosophy. Some fear that by funding schools, mosques, and much-needed infrastructure, foreign powers are creating divisions that once did not exist in this country, on the periphery of the Arab world.
Many in Dicko’s camp see institutions such as the Mustafa International School and the Iranian Cultural Center as a vehicle for Iranian political influence — an accusation Diabaté refuted, despite pictures of Khomeini in the school office, in the library, and on the back of his car.
“We will not accept the politicization of Islam,” he said. But he admitted that Shiites in Mali look to Iran for support in the face of Salafism. “Every state that represents a sect needs to protect its flock.”
Diabaté, sitting in a small office adjacent to the prayer hall and wearing the long brown robe and white turban of a Shiite scholar, explained how he “used to hate Shiites.” But in the late 1980s, he became part of a group of young scholars who participated in debates with Hassan Hambraze, then Iran’s chargé d’affaires in Bamako and son of a prominent Iranian cleric. In 1988, Hambraze was also responsible for sending a group of Malian students to the first Shiite school in West Africa. Diabaté converted and went on to study in Iran. On his return he became a prominent leader within Mali’s nascent Shiite community.
Today, he speaks of the country’s more hard-line Sunni leaders in conspiratorial terms: “The Salafi thinking is well known. They want to get into power and are planning for that. They plan to take control of the Islamic community.” After a pause, he added: “But we are not staying still. Everyone has their methods.”
Those methods seem clear: to proselytize and offer converts access to a good education and opportunities to travel and work in Iran. The Saudi strategy in Mali is more opaque (widespread rumors among Malians include tales of enormous checks coming from the Gulf to fund prominent Salafists). The diplomatic cables have thrown some light on Saudi activities in the country, which include funding for schools and preacher-training courses run by the Islamic University in Madinah and Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh.
Mali’s minister for religious affairs, Thierno Diallo, says he recognizes that Malian governments have long turned a blind eye to foreign-backed religious projects. Despite the country’s deeply religious population, Mali’s secular constitution means that the state has kept mosques at arm’s length. And while the government is aware of large sums of money entering Mali from unknown sources, it has few resources to reliably track them.
“It’s not documented,” he said, “and there’s no transparency. That’s a serious problem.”
Neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia has explicitly promoted violence in Mali. Diabaté, along with his Sunni counterparts, makes it clear that “Shiites, like everyone else, know that extremist groups in the north show no mercy.” Yet the creation of previously nonexistent sectarian identities for political ends leads to divisions that become associated with political agendas.
Imam Baba Diallo, another member of the High Islamic Council of Mali, said he wants to organize interfaith dialogue between the different sects but has yet to find funding. He looks grave as he talks about the potential consequences of inaction.
“If we fail [to heal the divide], the next war will be between Sunni and Shiite,” he said.
(This reporting was supported by funding from the International Reporting Project.)
BY PAUL RAYMOND, JACK WATLINGAUGUST 19, 2015
Find this story at 19 August 2015
Leak investigation stalls amid fears of confirming U.S.-Israel operation
July 27, 2015
A sensitive leak investigation of a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has stalled amid concerns that a prosecution in federal court could force the government to confirm a joint U.S.-Israeli covert operation targeting Iran, according to current and former U.S. officials.
Federal investigators suspect that retired Marine Gen. James E. “Hoss” Cartwright leaked to a New York Times reporter details about a highly classified operation to hobble Iran’s nuclear enrichment capability through cyber-sabotage — an effort not acknowledged by Israel or the United States.
Prosecutors will have to overcome significant national security and diplomatic concerns if they want to move forward, including pitting the Obama administration against Israel if that ally were opposed to any information about the cyber-operation being revealed in court.
The United States could move forward with the case against Israel’s wishes, but such a move might further harm relations between two countries, which are already frayed because of a disagreement over how best to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
Administration officials also fear that any revelations could complicate the current negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.
“There are always legitimate national security reasons for not proceeding in one of these cases,” said John L. Martin, who handled many sensitive espionage investigations as a former Justice Department prosecutor.
The case captures the tension between national security concerns and the desire of prosecutors to hold high-ranking officials to account for leaking classified secrets. The Obama administration has been the most aggressive in U.S. history in pursuing those suspected of leaking classified information.
The Justice Department has offered no clues to whether it intends to proceed with a case against Cartwright, who helped design the cyber-campaign against Iran under President George W. Bush and was involved in its escalation under President Obama.
Spokesmen for the Justice Department, the White House and the FBI declined to comment for this article.
Gregory B. Craig, Cartwright’s attorney and a former White House counsel in the Obama administration, said he has had no contact with prosecutors for more than a year.
“General Cartwright has done nothing wrong,” Craig said. “He has devoted his entire life to defending the United States. He would never do anything to weaken our national defense or undermine our national security. Hoss Cartwright is a national treasure, a genuine hero and a great patriot.”
In discussions with the office of the White House counsel, then led by Kathryn Ruemmler, prosecutors sought to determine whether the White House would be willing to declassify material important to the case. Ruemmler was unwilling to provide the documentation, citing security concerns, including those relating to sources and methods, said a person familiar with the matter.
Ruemmler, who left the post in June, declined to comment.
“There’s a fundamental tension in cases like this between the needs of a criminal prosecution and the needs of national security,” said Jason Weinstein, a former deputy assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, who was not briefed on the investigation. “Where that comes to a head is when prosecutors want to use evidence in a courtroom that is highly classified and very sensitive.”
It is often the case that the needs of a particular criminal prosecution yield to national security interests. “At the end of the day,” Weinstein said, “if you can’t use the evidence you need in court, you can’t bring the case.”
Details of the joint program, including its code name, Olympic Games, were revealed by Times reporter David E. Sanger in a book and article in June 2012. The sabotage of Iranian nuclear centrifuges by the computer worm dubbed Stuxnet had emerged two years earlier, and security experts speculated that it was the work of the United States and Israel.
Confirmation of the joint authorship set off a political controversy, with congressional Republicans charging that the White House had deliberately leaked information to enhance Obama’s national security credentials as he sought reelection.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. assigned Rod J. Rosenstein, the U.S. attorney for Maryland, to investigate the leak. His office declined to comment.
FBI investigators focused on Cartwright in the fall of 2012, officials said. They interviewed him at least twice, according to people who are familiar with the case and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the investigation. During the first interview, Cartwright had to go to the hospital.
Part of the challenge of preparing a case like this is determining to what extent authorities who control the declassification of information, in this case the White House and the intelligence community, are willing to divulge information.
In the case of a CIA officer who was recently convicted of espionage, the government disclosed sensitive details during the leak trial about a separate operation to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program that occurred more than a decade ago. The CIA even allowed a Russian scientist who had defected and taken part in the highly classified operation to testify.
“The government’s got to make a choice: Is it more important to prosecute a national security leak or more important to preserve relationships with allies and shield sources and methods that protect the country?” said one individual familiar with the matter.
The case also poses opportunities for “graymail” — a situation in which defense attorneys exercise leverage that lawyers in ordinary criminal cases lack by forcing prosecutors to make tough judgment calls about divulging sensitive or classified information.
Craig might, for instance, push for broad discovery of information aimed at demonstrating that other officials could have been sources of the leak. Experts say he also could press to establish the factual basis for the information leaked, which could expose sensitive material.
Cartwright, who retired in 2011, had White House authorization to speak with reporters, according to people familiar with the matter. Craig might try to put the White House’s relationship with reporters and the use of authorized leaks on display, creating a potentially embarrassing distraction for the administration.
The case could remain open beyond the point at which national security and foreign policy concerns are an issue. Under the Espionage Act, one of the statutes that the government probably would use, prosecutors have 10 years from the date of the alleged crime to file charges.
Sari Horwitz contributed to this report.
By Ellen Nakashima and Adam Goldman March 10
Find this story at 10 March 2015
Israelis tried to send arms to Iran via Greece, probe finds
February 22, 2014
Israeli arms dealers tried to send spare parts for F-4 Phantom aircraft via Greece to Iran in violation of an arms embargo, according to a secret probe by the US government agency Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) carried out in cooperation with the drugs and weapons unit of Greece’s Financial Crimes Squad (SDOE).
According to the probe, which Kathimerini has had access to, the operation was carried out in two phases – one in December 2012 and the second in April 2013. In both cases, officials traced containers packed with the F-4 parts on Greek territory. The cargo had been sent by courier from the Israeli town of Binyamina-Giv’at Ada and had been destined for Iran, which has a large fleet of F-4 aircraft, via a Greek company registered under the name Tassos Karras SA in Votanikos, near central Athens. SDOE officials established that the firm was a ghost company, while the company’s contact number was found to belong to a British national residing in Thessaloniki who could not be located.
According to HSI memos, the cargo appears to have been sent by arms dealers based in Israel, seeking to supply Iran in contravention of an arms embargo, and using Greece as a transit nation.
Last November, an Athens court ruled against the confiscation of the consignments and ordered that they be delivered to US authorities.
The US imposed sanctions against Iran in 1979, after a revolution which overthrew the Shah, extending them in 1995 to include firms dealing with the Iranian government. Several governments and multinationals have since followed suit.
ekathimerini.com , Sunday February 16, 2014 (15:23)
Find this story at 16 February 2014
© 2014, H KAΘHMEPINH
Exclusive: U.S. Fingers Iranian Commandos for Kidnapping Raid Inside Iraq (2013)
January 8, 2014
U.S. intelligence officials believe that Iranian commandos took part in a deadly attack on a compound of dissidents inside Iraq and then spirited seven members of the group back to Iran, highlighting Tehran’s increasingly free hand inside Iraq in the wake of the U.S withdrawal from the country.
The Sept. 1 attack on a base called Camp Ashraf killed at least 50 members of the Mujahedeen-e Khalq, or MEK, which had disarmed at the request of the U.S. military after the American invasion of Iraq and received explicit promises of protection from senior commanders. Instead, gory videos released by the group showed that many of its members had been shot with their hands tied behind their backs or in one of the camp’s makeshift hospitals. MEK leaders, backed by an array of U.S. lawmakers, said Iraqi security forces carried out the attack.
Baghdad has long denied the charge, and U.S. officials have now concluded that a small number of Iranian paramilitaries from its feared Islamic Revolution Guards Corps helped plan and direct the assault on the camp. Three officials, speaking to Foreign Policy for the first time, said gunmen from two of Tehran’s Iraqi-based proxies, Kitab Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, then carried out the actual attack. The Iranian involvement in the Ashraf massacre hasn’t been reported before.
“Iraqi soldiers didn’t get in the way of what was happening at Ashraf, but they didn’t do the shooting,” a U.S. official briefed on the intelligence community’s assessment of the attack said in an interview. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified information.
U.S. officials say that Iran’s role in the attack didn’t end with the killings of the MEK members at Ashraf. Instead, officials believe that Iranian commandos and fighters from the country’s Iraqi proxies also abducted seven MEK members and smuggled them back to Iran. The missing MEK supporters haven’t been seen or heard from since the attack.
Direct Iranian involvement in the Ashraf assault is one of the clearest signs yet of Tehran’s growing power within Iraq, a dynamic of deep concern to American policymakers. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite government has long maintained close ties with top Iranian leaders, and U.S. officials believe that Tehran prodded Maliki to refuse to sign a bilateral security pact in the fall of 2010 that would have kept some U.S. troops in the country. Perhaps under Iran’s influence, Maliki has alienated Iraq’s sizable Sunni and Kurdish minorities by centralizing power in Baghdad and refusing to share power or fairly divvy up the country’s oil revenues.
The timing of the attack also raises questions about whether Iran’s security services are as committed to finding a rapprochement with Washington as its civilian government appears to be. The assault took place in September, several months after negotiators from the two governments had begun secret nuclear talks in Oman that ultimately led to last month’s landmark nuclear pact between the Obama administration and the government of Iranian President Hasan Rouhani. The deadly attack on a U.S.-allied group inside Iraq suggests that at least some elements within Tehran are willing to take steps that risk upsetting that fragile equilibrium.
MEK leaders in Washington strongly disagree with the U.S. conclusions about the Ashraf attack. They point out that the facility is guarded by fences, checkpoints and more than 1,200 Iraqi troops, making it extremely difficult for gunmen to reach the camp without, at a minimum, the active cooperation of Iraqi forces. They also note that survivors said the masked gunmen spoke Arabic and argue that the group’s own operatives within Iran would know if the seven missing members had been brought into the country. They believe that Tehran ordered the attack, but say that it was carried out by Iraqi soldiers loyal to Maliki.
“The repeated statements by U.S. officials that Iraq has had no role in the September 1 massacre at Ashraf are only designed to exonerate the Iraqi prime minister and his senior officials from any responsibility in this manifest case of crime against humanity and to help him elude justice,” Shahin Gobadi, a spokesman for the National Council of Iran Resistance, said in a written statement.
U.S. officials, for their part, say that the Iranian commandos could have used Arabic to mask their identities or stayed just outside the camp while the Iraqi gunmen carried out the assault. They also say at the missing MEK members might have been executed shortly after being brought into Iran or imprisoned in secret facilities for interrogation.
The Obama administration has largely declined to publicly address Iranian involvement in the Ashraf attack. During a contentious hearing of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs earlier this month, Secretary of State John Kerry said he couldn’t respond to a question about the missing MEK members in an open, unclassified session.
Still, other senior officials have provided hints about their whereabouts. At a sparsely-attended congressional hearing in mid-November, Brett McGurk, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq and Iran, told lawmakers that the seven MEK members “are not in Iraq.”
McGurk told the lawmakers that the remaining 2,900 MEK members in Iraq wouldn’t be safe until they could be brought out of the country and resettled elsewhere.
“The Iraqi government needs to do everything possible to keep those people safe, but they will never be safe until they’re out of Iraq,” McGurk said at the time. “And we all need to work together — the MEK, us, the committee, everybody, the international community — to find a place for them to go.”
Tehran’s antipathy towards the MEK isn’t surprising. The group has spent years publicly decrying the Iranian government and telling lawmakers that it has broad support within Iran and could help turn the country into a democracy. It has also revealed key details about the country’s nuclear program. In response, Iranian-backed forces inside Iraq have frequently targeted the group. In February, six of its members were killed and dozens were wounded when mortar shells landed at an MEK refugee camp on the grounds of a former U.S. base called Camp Liberty. A Hezbollah affiliate claimed responsibility.
Outgunned in Iraq, the MEK has tried to score points in the Washington influence game. It has enlisted former members of the military and both the Bush and Obama administrations as public advocates and unofficial lobbyists. The State Department designated it as a “foreign terrorist organization” in 1997, but removed the listing in September 2012 after strong pressure from MEK supporters like retired Marine Gen. Jim Jones, Obama’s first national security advisor, and former Attorney General Mike Mukasey. Most of the MEK’s most prominent backers are paid for making public appearances on the group’s behalf, but they also do pro bono work for the organization and say they genuinely believe in its cause.
The group also enjoys strong support on Capitol Hill. In the weeks after the Ashraf assault, New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a staunch MEK supporter, told Wendy Sherman, the No. 3 official at the State Department, that he would suspend U.S. weapons sales to Iraq until Maliki’s government did more to protect the MEK members still in the country.
The Obama administration, for its part, says the MEK’s members will only be safe once they’ve left Iraq. It’s not clear, however, if or when other countries will step forward and announce a willingness to accept them.
BY Yochi Dreazen DECEMBER 17, 2013 – 06:11 PM
Find this story at 17 December 2013
US-Protected Iran Exile Group in Line for Huge Cash Windfall (2009)
January 8, 2014
The MEK can use some of that cash to pay legal settlements with former members that
they tortured, as well as the families of Iranians they killed when they fought on the side of
Saddam against Iran.
The controversial Iranian exile organization MEK, which the United States calls a terrorist
group, could soon see a windfall of tens of millions of dollars as the result of the European
Union’s decision Monday to take it off its list of terrorist organizations.
If so, it will mark dramatic turnaround the group’s fortunes.
The MEK, shorthand for the Mujahedin-e Khalq, and also known as the People’s
Mujahideen Organisation of Iran, looked like it was on the ropes only days ago, when Iraqi
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said he wanted its U.S.-protected military base near the
Iranian border closed within two months.
But the E.U.’s Jan. 26 decision not only unlocks untold millions of dollars frozen in
European banks, it allows the militant anti-Iran organization to go public with appeals for
millions more, perhaps catapulting it into a leading role in the Iranian opposition abroad.
The MEK could claim $9 million held in France alone, along with “tens of millions of
dollars” worth of assets locked away in other EU countries, its spokesman told Radio Free
What will it do with the windfall?
“Set off car bombs around Iran,” jibed former CIA operative Robert Baer, whose pursuit
was dramatized by George Clooney in the 2005 movie “Syriana.”
The group says it has renounced violence, but the MEK has carried out dozens of terrorist
attacks and assassinations against Iranian targets both inside and outside of the country.
Some of those were launched from its base in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, before the 2003
MEK leader Maryam Rajavi said the unfrozen millions “will be used to increase our political
activities … including to further disclose the mullah regime’s secret nuclear weapons sites.”
Since Hussein’s overthrow, the 3,000 MEK fighters in Camp Ashraf, as it’s called, have
been under the “protection” of U.S. troops, even though they’re still officially labeled
terrorists by the State Department.
The seeming anomaly can be at least party explained by frequent reports that the MEK
has been secretly helping the CIA run operations against the Islamic regime from its base
in southeastern Iraq.
Its terrorist label was earned before the 1979 Iranian Islamic revolution, when the group,
which bills itself as Marxist-Islamist, targeted Americans working in Iran. Indeed, 30 years
ago this month the group helped overthrow the U.S.-backed shah and take 52 American
But eventually it turned against the religious regime. In 2001 its sustained opposition to
Iran, its supposed renunciation of violence, and its portrayal of itself as a “progressive”
political force won it admirers in the Bush administration and pro-democracy groups in
Europe. Of no small note, it has also played a major role in exposing Iran’s nuclear
Walid Phares, a scholar on terrorism and American of Lebanese descent, called the
closing of Camp Ashraf “a significant Iranian victory.”
“Ashraf was the only base for the MEK against Iran’s regime,” he said by e-mail. “If it is
shut down, they will lose the only base they have.”
“More than a military base of the opposition against Tehran,” he added, “Ashraf was a
political base for broadcast and political outreach to the opposition in the inside.”
On the other hand, the E.U.’s decision will conceivably allow MEK fighters entry into
Europe, at least temporarily solving the problem of what to do with them once Ashraf is
That, and the new money, can only add to the MEK’s political clout, which was put on
display last year when the group drew 85,000 people to an anti-Iran protest outside Paris.
To date, exile communities have been divided over the MEK because of its attacks on
Iranian troops from Iraqi soil during the two nations’ 10-year war. Some call the
organization a puritanistic “cult,” because of its iron-fist leadership by a husband and wife
team who have been accused of violating the human rights of their own followers.
But the E.U.’s decision could give the MEK a big boost over its rivals, Phares suggests.
“Once they are decertified [as a terrorist group] they will act as an international NGO [nongovernmental organization] and will most likely receive even more donations from Iranian
exiles,” said Phares, a senior fellow at the hawkish Foundation for the Defense of
Democracies in Washington.
“De-certification by itself will strengthen the group within the Iranian diaspora,” he
continued. “Will they access to frozen funds in EU banks? This is another issue and will
have to be negotiated. But certainly they will have a legal base. They will spend it to widen
their base, and on strategic communications regarding Iran.”
All things considered, it’s not hard to suspect a hidden American hand in the E.U. decision,
or at least acquiescence in it, since it so neatly finesses the eviction notice served on
Camp Ashraf by Prime Minister Maliki.
In any event, it keeps MEK alive — and more — despite the threatened closing of its
longtime base in Iraq.
The Iranian regime reacted sharply to the E.U. move, accusing the union of a “double
standard” on terrorism. It also said it was drafting a plan to put MEK members on trial,
“either in the Islamic Republic or outside the country,” according to Press TV, an Iranian
By Jeff Stein | January 28, 2009
Find this story at 28 January 2009
Copyright Jeff Stein
Iranian dissidents killed in Iraq camp, U.N. demands inquiry (2013)
January 8, 2014
(Reuters) – At least 47 people were reported killed at an Iranian dissident camp in Iraq on Sunday, the United Nations said, urging Baghdad to investigate the “tragic events” at a site north of the capital.
The violence took place hours after a mortar bomb attack on the camp which the dissent group Mujahadin-e-Khalq (MEK) blamed on the Iraqi army.
Two Iraqi security sources said that army and special forces had opened fire on residents who had stormed a post at the entrance to Camp Ashraf, a site that Iraq’s government wants closed down. They said at least 19 were killed, 52 wounded and 38 arrested and that they believed residents were not armed.
However, the U.N. statement had a figure closer to the toll given by MEK, which said 52 of its roughly 100 members at the camp had been killed.
An advisor to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said reports that security forces had opened fire on the residents were baseless and said that Maliki had ordered an investigation into what had happened.
“We want to know the truth,” advisor Ali al-Moussawi said. He said it was unclear what had caused the blast in the morning. Residents could have been killed in the explosion or through infighting at the camp, he said. He gave no casualty figures.
In a statement, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appealed for the urgent restoration of security in the camp.
“The United Nations deplores the tragic events at Camp Ashraf today that have reportedly left 47 killed,” he said. Baghdad should “promptly investigate the incident and disclose the findings.”
MEK, which the U.S. State Department removed from its list of terrorist organizations last year, said some residents were machine-gunned with their hands tied behind their backs.
The U.S. embassy in Iraq condemned “the terrible events that took place in Camp Ashraf” and the UN said it would send in a team from its Iraq office to carry out its own probe.
“We further call on Iraqi authorities to act with urgency to immediately ensure medical assistance to the wounded and to secure the camp against any further violence or harm to the residents,” the U.S. embassy statement said, calling for a full, independent investigation.
MALIKI ORDERS PROBE
MEK emailed photos of people it said had been shot in the head during the clashes. Men and women were shown lying on blood-covered floors. It was not possible for Reuters independently to verify the images.
“The Iraqi government stresses the need for help to deport elements of the Mujahadin-e-Khalq who are on Iraqi soil illegally but at the same time confirms its commitment to the safety of souls on its territory,” Maliki’s office said in a statement referring to “events” at Camp Ashraf.
It gave no further details.
MEK wants Iran’s clerical leaders overthrown and fought with former Iraqi Sunni Muslim leader Saddam Hussein’s forces in the 1980s Iran-Iraq war.
It has been seeking to recast itself as an Iranian opposition force but is no longer welcome in Iraq under the Shi’ite Muslim-led government that came to power after U.S.-led forces toppled Saddam in 2003. Iraq’s current government is close to Iranian authorities.
Mortar bomb attacks on a newer MEK camp in a former military compound in western Baghdad, where authorities had relocated most Camp Ashraf MEK members, took place in February and June. At the time, MEK blamed Iran’s Quds force – an elite unit of the Revolutionary Guards with a special focus on foreign operations.
MEK, also known as the People’s Mujahideen Organisation of Iran, led a guerrilla campaign against the U.S.-backed Iranian Shah during the 1970s that included attacks on U.S. targets.
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed and a Reuters reporter in Diyala, Iraq; Writing by Sylvia Westall; Editing by Jon Boyle)
By Kareem Raheem and Sylvia Westall
BAGHDAD Sun Sep 1, 2013 4:47pm EDT
Find this story at 1 September 2013
Copyright Thomson Reuters
EU Takes Iranian Group Off Terror List, But Status Still Disputed (2009)
January 8, 2014
Iraq has threatened to send MKO members at Camp Ashraf back to Iran, where many fear imprisonment or death.
At its monthly meeting of foreign ministers, the European Union has decided to remove the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO) from its list of terrorist organizations.
The decision marks the first time the EU has “de-listed” an organization from its terrorist index, and could free the MKO, also known as the People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran, to expand its activities in Europe. It is also likely to further strain Tehran’s already damaged relations with the West.
Formed in the 1960s to fight the shah’s regime, the Islamic-socialist MKO joined the 1979 Islamic revolution that overthrew him, but later fell out with the new clerical regime and fought with Saddam Hussein during Iraq’s 1980-88 war with Iran. Major attacks by the MKO against Tehran ceased by the early 1990s and the group renounced violence in 2001, but Tehran continues to seek MKO members’ extradition.
Maryam Rajavi, the France-based leader of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the political branch of the MKO that has been active in Europe in recent years, characterized the EU move as a “stinging defeat for Europe’s policy of appeasement” of Tehran.
And Said Mahmudi, a professor of international law at the University of Stockholm, says it will end the MKO’s difficulties in raising funds in Europe.
“Even though they had the possibility to contact different political organizations, there were some groups and bodies — particularly some individuals — who, because of the terrorist branding of the group, avoided it and didn’t give it public backing,” Mahmudi says.
“Now that the MKO has been removed from the EU terror list, all the groups that are sympathetic to the MKO will be able to support them publicly and help them without any problem,” he adds.
Shahin Gobadi, a spokesman for the group, says that $9 million had been frozen in France alone, with “tens of millions of dollars” worth of assets also locked away in other EU countries.
History Of Opposition
The development marks a striking turnaround for an organization that remains on the United States’ terrorism list, while remaining a fierce enemy of Tehran.
After its founding in 1965, members of the group took up arms against the Iranian shah and were involved in the killings of several U.S. citizens working in Iran in the 1970s. The group initially supported the 1979 revolution, but then went underground when an uprising against the newly established Islamic regime went awry.
Iranian protesting the decision outside the French Embassy in Tehran
Within years of the revolution, many MKO members were jailed, some were executed, and others fled Iran and went into exile.
The MKO later helped orchestrate a number of attacks against Iran’s leaders, including a 1981 bombing in which Iran’s prime minister and president were killed. In 1986, in the midst of the Iran-Iraq War, the organization’s leaders and members relocated to Iraq, where Saddam Hussein granted them refuge.
The MKO’s support for Iraq in the 1980-88 war is today seen by observers as the main reason for its limited support among Iranians. It is also accused by critics of collaborating with Saddam during his bloody campaign against the Kurds, charges that the MKO denies.
But the militant group renounced violence in 2001 and has not kept arms since 2003. It has also long sought to be removed from the EU and U.S. terror lists as Tehran continued its efforts to oust the group from Iraq.
Iran’s largest opposition group in exile, the MKO follows an ideology that combines Islam and Marxism and says it is the best hope for establishing democracy in Iran. In 2002, the MKO exposed Iran’s covert nuclear activities.
But critics cast doubt on its effectiveness in opposing the Iranian regime, while organizations such as Human Rights Watch (in a 2005 report) have accused it of subjecting dissident members to torture and prolonged solitary confinement.
Massoud Khodabandeh, a former MKO member who currently works as an analyst with the French Center for the Study of Terrorism and an adviser to Iraq’s government, describes the MKO as a personality cult obsessed with celibacy.
“I witnessed forced divorces amid cries and shouts. I witnessed how 150 children under the age of 7 — the youngest was only two months old — were separated from their mothers and sent to other countries because the MKO leader had said [the children] are disrupting my relations with you,” Khodabandeh says.
MKO leaders have in the past rejected similar charges, but the reputation that precedes the group has opened questions about whether Brussels’s move fits with its efforts to promote human rights and to fight terrorism.
“If a group makes a pronouncement that it is abandoning violence, then I think we should be able to give them the chance to prove the case, so I think that’s what the European policy on these matters should be,” says professor John Wilkinson, chairman of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews.
“Let us find political pathways away from violence where we can,” he continues. “If a group proves that it has not lived up to its claim to abandon violence then, of course, we must revert to using the instruments of criminal justice and law enforcement to deal with it.”
Future Of The People’s Mujahedin
Some 3,000 MKO members are currently based at Camp Ashraf in Iraq. Their presence there has led to increased concern over their fate since the Iraqi government took over responsibility for the camp from U.S. forces earlier this month.
Washington, while keeping the MKO on its list of terrorist organizations, has given members of the group who stay at Ashraf the status of “protected persons” under the Geneva Conventions.
Iraqi officials have made it clear that the group “is not wanted” on Iraqi territory, and have called on MKO members to leave voluntarily. This, in turn, led supporters and rights groups to warn that they could face torture or death if they returned to Iran.
Khodabandeh believes that the EU decision could mean a way out for those MKO members who are willing to leave Ashraf, including a number of his “friends.”
“I hope that the removal of MKO from the EU terror list will enable some of those individuals to be saved from the situation they’re facing in Iraq,” he says. “About 1,000 of them were based in [Europe] before; they should be given the right to return to their families.”
It’s not clear whether the EU decision will have an impact on Washington’s designation of the group as a foreign terrorist organization. The NCRI’s Rajavi, for one, urges the United States to follow the EU’s example.
The former U.S. administration reaffirmed its designation of the MKO as a foreign terrorist organization on January 7.
But Iran, which has said that nothing has changed “in the terrorist nature” of the group, can be expected to take some sort of action against the EU ruling.
In a possible hint at what might come, the head of the National Security Committee of the Iranian parliament on January 25 warned the EU against making a “mistake.”
“There is no reason for Iran to continue tens of billions of euros in economic and trade ties with the EU in this case,” Alaeddin Borujerdi said, adding that Iran has “many options” for new partners.
The Iranian parliament is expected on January 27 to discuss a draft bill “to authorize the government and the judiciary to bring those MKO members who have committed crimes to justice.”
By Golnaz Esfandiari
January 26, 2009
Find this story at 29 January 2009
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty © 2014 RFE/RL, Inc.
U.S. protects Iranian opposition group in Iraq (2007)
January 8, 2014
BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) — An Iranian opposition group based in Iraq, labeled a terrorist organization by the United States, gets protection from the U.S. military despite Iraqi pressure to leave the country.
The U.S. considers the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, or MEK, a source of valuable intelligence on Iran.
The group also is credited with helping expose Iran’s secret nuclear program through spying on Tehran for decades.
Iranian officials tied the MEK to an explosion in February at a girls school in Zahedan, Iran. (Full story)
The U.S. State Department considers the MEK a terrorist organization — meaning no American can deal with it; U.S. banks must freeze its assets; and any American giving support to its members is committing a crime.
The U.S. military, though, regularly escorts MEK supply runs between Baghdad and its base, Camp Ashraf.
“The trips for procurement of logistical needs also take place under the control and protection of the MPs,” said Mojgan Parsaii, vice president of MEK and leader of Camp Ashraf.
That’s because, according to U.S. documents, coalition forces regard MEK as protected people under the Geneva Conventions.
“The coalition remains deeply committed to the security and rights of the protected people of Ashraf,” U.S. Maj. Gen. John D. Gardner wrote in March 2006.
The group also enjoys the protection of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
“The ICRC has made clear that the residents of Camp Ashraf must not be deported, expelled or repatriated,” according to an ICRC letter.
Despite repeated requests, neither Iran’s ambassador in Baghdad nor the U.S. military would comment on MEK, also known as Mojahedin Khalq Organization, or MKO.
The State Department said Friday the Geneva Conventions protections apply only to MEK residents of Camp Ashraf, and the organization as a whole and its members elsewhere are subject to prosecution for terrorist or criminal acts.
“We still regard them as a terrorist organization,” former U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said.
When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, Green Berets arrived at Camp Ashraf to find gardens and monuments, along with more than 2,000 well-maintained tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery, anti-aircraft guns and vehicles.
All 3,800 camp residents were questioned by Americans. No arrests were made, and the camp quickly surrendered under a cease-fire agreement — an agreement that also guaranteed its safety.
“Everyone’s entry to the camp and his departure are controlled by the U.S. military police force,” Parsaii said.
The MEK denies it is a terrorist group. Both Iran and the Iraqi government, however, accuse the group of ongoing terrorist attacks, and the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government wants it out.
“We gave this organization a six-month deadline to leave Iraq, and we informed the Red Cross,” said Shirwan al-Wa’eli, Iraq’s national security minister. “And presumably, our friends the Americans will respect our decision and they will not stay on Iraqi land.”
For now, however, the United States continues to protect MEK.
“There are counter-pressures, too,” Khalilzad said. “There are people who say, ‘No, they should be allowed to stay here.’ And as you know, around the world there are people with different views toward them.”
POSTED: 1553 GMT (2353 HKT), April 6, 2007
Find this story at 6 April 2007
© 2007 Cable News Network.
Deadly violence hits Iran exiles’ Camp Ashraf in Iraq
January 8, 2014
Camp Ashraf once housed more than 3,000 exiles, but most have moved to another camp (file photo)
Violence has erupted at a camp in Iraq for dissident Iranians, who say dozens of residents have lost their lives.
The Mujahideen-e Khalq group accused Iraqi forces of attacking Camp Ashraf north-east of Baghdad, killing at least 52 of its members – some shot in the head at close range.
However Iraqi officials said no soldiers entered the camp.
UN representatives have condemned the bloodshed and urged Iraq swiftly to establish the facts.
A statement from the UN mission in Iraq also called on Iraqi officials to ensure security for residents at the camp and urged an end to the violence so medical help could reach the wounded.
“The only thing we can confirm is there are a lot of casualties,” Eliana Nabaa, a spokeswoman for the UN mission to Iraq was quoted as saying.
The population of Camp Ashraf, once home to more than 3,000 members of the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), was believed to have dwindled to about 100 before the violence.
In recent years, Iraqi authorities have been trying to dismantle the camp and eject the group, which has been based in Iraq since the 1980s.
Accounts of the violence given by MEK spokesmen and different local officials vary.
MEK officials said Iraqi forces attacked Camp Ashraf early on Sunday, firing mortar rounds.
Some Iraqi reports confirmed that mortar rounds had been fired without identifying their origin, but said the deaths came during subsequent clashes. Others said the blasts heard at the camp were caused by oil and gas canisters exploding.
Another source said there had been a raid on the camp overnight, but put the death toll at 19.
One source said Iraqi security forces opened fire after a crowd stormed a post at the camp entrance, wounding about 50 people, Reuters reported.
Local hospitals reported that three Iraqi soldiers were killed and four wounded in the violence, AFP said.
MEK officials sent out photographs and a video of people said to have been shot in the head during the clashes, but the images have not been independently verified.
A spokesman for the Iraqi prime minister confirmed there had been deaths among camp residents, but said initial investigations suggested they had resulted from infighting, AP reported.
Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has ordered an investigation, Reuters said.
Camp Ashraf was set up in the late 1980s to launch raids on Iran. It was welcomed by Iraq’s then president, Saddam Hussein, who was fighting a war against Iran.
Most members of the MEK – also known as the People’s Mujahedin Organisation of Iran (PMOI) – were moved to a new camp last year.
Iran considers the MEK a terrorist group
The group was removed from the US State Department’s list of terrorist organisations last year.
1 September 2013 Last updated at 19:57 ET
Find this story at 1 September 2013
BBC © 2014
CIA held Syrian militants responsible for Lockerbie bombing
December 27, 2013
Muammar Gaddafi’s Libyan regime was publicly blamed by the US for the attack
The wreckage of the PanAm airliner that exploded and crashed over Lockerbie Photo: AFP
The CIA secretly held Syrian militants, rather than Libya, responsible for the Lockerbie bombing, according to newly unearthed testimony from a former US spy in the Middle East.
Dr Richard Fuisz said in a sworn deposition in 2001 that he was told by up to 15 senior Syrian officials that the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) had carried out the attack.
He also testified that CIA bosses told him the PFLP-GC was responsible, according to a lawyer’s note of a second deposition. Ahmed Jibril, the group’s founder leader, who is still alive at 75, was singled out as being to blame for the downing of Pan Am flight 103 over Scotland in December 1988, killing 270 people.
“Numerous high officials in the Syrian government were quite affirmative on Jibril’s involvement in Pan Am 103,” Dr Fuisz told lawyers, during his deposition in Virginia in 2001.
Dr Fuisz gave his depositions in 2000 and 2001 at the request of Megrahi’s defence lawyers. However, the evidence came too late to be used in the trial. They were first published by Channel 4 News.The CIA declined to comment.
Muammar Gaddafi’s Libyan regime was publicly blamed by the US for the attack, and Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was convicted of the bombing in 2001. He was later released and died last year in Libya.
But serious doubts about the conviction have been raised by investigative journalists for several years, centring on forensic evidence, and Libya has strenuously denied involvement.
The PFLP-GC were in fact the first prime suspects in the investigation.
Experts suggested it may have been ordered by the Iranian government as revenge for the accidental shooting down of an Iranian passenger jet by a US battleship months earlier, killing 290.
They added that blame may have been diverted from Iran in order to protect secret and delicate negotiations by George Bush’s US administration over western hostages.
Dr Fuisz, a businessman who is said to have been a senior US intelligence asset in the Middle East in the 1980s and 90s, said that the Syrian officials he spoke to interacted with Jibril “on a constant basis” and that he was widely regarded to be the mastermind behind the bombing.
Asked who the Syrian officials cited as their source for the information, he said: “My recollection is they were direct. They were not hearsay sources on their part.” Asked if that he understood that to mean that he was “being told by members of the Syrian government that Jibril, and or members of the PFLGC were taking credit for the bombing,” he replied: “Yes”.
10:32PM GMT 20 Dec 2013
Find this story at 20 December 2013
© Copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited 2013
‘MI6 agent’ was spying on Iran oil shipping, officials claim
December 23, 2013
Iranian man arrested on charges of spying for British intelligence was passing on information on shipping operations to help impose sanctions, parliamentarians told
The Iranian man arrested for spying for British intelligence was helping foreign governments impose EU sanctions on covert oil shipping operations, parliamentarians in the country have been briefed.
An Iranian MP revealed the alleged MI6 agent was passing information on Iran’s shipping industries to its “enemies”, to be used in international efforts to cripple the sector.
Court officials in the city of Kerman said a suspect had confessed to holding 11 meetings inside and outside the country with British intelligence.
Alireza Manzari Tavakoli, an intelligence specialist in the Iranian parliament, was quoted on a news website claiming that the man handed over details of sanctions-busting activities. “We have received further information about the arrested individual that suggests that he has been involved in passing secret data on Iran’s shipping industries and the insurance covers on our oil tankers to the British intelligence services,” he said. “The EU could use them for imposing more sanctions on our shipping sectors.
“The arrested individual has also confessed to passing economic intelligence about Iran’s use of other countries’ flags in transporting its oil abroad. The information provided by this spy has been used by the enemies of the Islamic Republic to pass new and more sanctions on Iran.”
Britain’s role as the centre of the global maritime industry and leading insurance hub of the merchant fleet means London was pivotal to efforts to impose a virtual shutdown of Iran’s oil shipping through EU-wide sanctions.
Meanwhile Dadkhoda Salari, the public prosecutor in the city of Kerman, has described the alleged spy as a 50-year-old man, with good university education and fluent in English, who has never held any government job. Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence agents had been monitoring his movements for the last two months.
Hardliners opposed to the current thaw in British relations with Iran could use the spying revelations to disrupt progress towards restoration of full diplomatic ties.
Conservative factions have already sought to secure the withdrawal of an invitation by Iran’s parliament to Jack Straw, the former foreign secretary, to fly to Tehran for a fence-mending visit.
The announcement of the case came just a day after Iran’s new non-resident envoy to Britain, Hassan Habibollah-Zadeh, held talks in London on his first visit since his appointment last month. Ajay Sharma, his British counterpart, broke a two-year freeze in diplomatic relations earlier this month when, following the temporary deal on Iran’s nuclear programme in Geneva, he visited the Tehran embassy that was looted by an Iranian mob in November 2011.
By Damien McElroy, and Ahmed Vahdat
7:10PM GMT 15 Dec 2013
Find this story at 14 December 2013
© Copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited 2013
Iran claims to have captured MI6 spy
December 23, 2013
The alleged spy is said to have worked for British intelligence agency MI6 (pictured)
Iran says it has captured a spy working for British intelligence agency MI6 in the south-eastern city of Kerman.
The head of Kerman’s revolutionary court said the alleged spy had admitted being in contact with four British intelligence officers 11 times, both inside and outside the country.
He said the accused was now on trial and had confessed. The nationality of the alleged spy is not yet known.
The UK Foreign Office said it did not comment on intelligence matters.
Iran regularly claims to have captured spies working for foreign powers but in most cases the accused is released without charge months later.
According to a report from Iran’s conservative news agency Tasnim, the alleged spy was arrested after 10 months of intelligence work and had once had a meeting with British agents in London.
It quotes Dadkhoda Salari, the head of the Kerman court, as saying he is aged over 50, with an “academic education”. He is said to be fluent in English but does not hold an official post.
The news comes as Iran and Britain take steps to try to re-establish diplomatic relations.
Britain shut down its embassy in Tehran, the Iranian capital, in 2011 after it was stormed in a protest over British nuclear sanctions.
Iran’s envoy to the UK this week made his first visit to London, during which he met officials at the Foreign Office.
The visit followed a trip to Iran earlier this month by the UK’s new envoy to the country – the first by a British diplomat for two years.
Non-resident charge d’affaires Ajay Sharma said he had “detailed and constructive discussions” about the UK’s relationship with Iran.
He also visited the site of the British embassy in Tehran to assess the damage following the mob attack two years ago.
Foreign Secretary William Hague has said relations between the two countries were improving on a “reciprocal basis”.
Thawing relations between Tehran and the international community have also seen a temporary deal reached over its nuclear programme.
Iran last month agreed to curb some of its nuclear activities in return for £4.3bn in sanctions relief, after days of talks in Geneva.
The country agreed to give better access to inspectors and halt some of its work on uranium enrichment for a six-month period.
14 December 2013 Last updated at 08:27 ET
Find this story at 14 December 2013
© 2013 The BBC
‘MI6 spy’ captured by Iran
December 23, 2013
Authorities say they have arrested an individual who has confessed to working for British intelligence
The British Secret Intelligence Services Headquarters in London Photo: EPA
Iran claims to have captured a British “spy” in a move that has threatened to cause a diplomatic crisis.
Officials in the country said a businessman in his fifties had been detained on suspicion of gathering intelligence “in all spheres” for the British security services.
They claimed he had confessed to meeting MI6 agents inside and outside Iran on 11 occasions.
Iran’s decision to publicise the arrest comes at a critical stage of diplomacy between the two countries, which broke off all official contact after the attack on the British embassy in Tehran two years ago.
Experts have said that the arrest and its announcement may have been driven by hardliners who oppose a deal to prevent Iran gaining nuclear weapons.
IRNA, Iran’s state news agency, reported that security forces had arrested an alleged spy working for the British Government in Kerman, a south-eastern province. The nationality of the arrested man, who is alleged to have “confessed” to espionage, has not been disclosed. There was no suggestion he is a British national. Spying in Iran carries the death penalty.
A Foreign Office spokesman said she would not comment on intelligence matters. Government sources said that the tactic of arresting local people on false charges of being British spies was something that happened “every few months” but that they were usually not publicised by the regime.
It was feared that the arrest could signal a determination among Iranian hardliners to unseat negotiations with the West, including last month’s agreement on the country’s nuclear programme. The “spying” charge could compromise diplomatic achievements, although Whitehall is understood to be treating the development with caution.
The nuclear deal led to the first formal contact between the United States and Tehran since they severed diplomatic ties over the 1979 hostage crisis, and was viewed as a crucial step towards avoiding a crisis in the Middle East.
Tehran is known to have used trumped-up spying allegations in the past to resolve internal disagreements. Dadkhoda Salari, the head of Kerman revolutionary court, said the alleged spy was a man with “business activities” who established a link with the British embassy in Tehran before its closure.
“The accused has had 11 face-to-face meetings with British intelligence officers, both inside and outside the country, and in every single meeting has passed to his MI6 contacts the specific information that they had asked him to collect,” said Mr Salari.
An Iranian news agency used this picture to illustrate the capture of the spy
“At the same time he has received certain instructions that would have enabled him to act against the interests of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
“He had been in touch with four intelligence officers and after receiving their instructions and training he has transferred their specific requested information to the country of their origin.
“This spy has been captured after many months of complicated intelligence operations and with the help of the almighty God.”
Mr Salari added that the man’s trial was already taking place and that he had “confessed” to all charges. The judicial spokesman said the accused had academic qualifications and spoke fluent English, and claimed he had collected intelligence “in all spheres” for Britain.
Tasnim news, an Iranian news website, claimed one of the man’s alleged meetings with British intelligence took place in London.
The announcement came a day after Hassan Habibollah-Zadeh, Iran’s new envoy to Britain, made his first visit to London. Mr Habibollah-Zadeh said that negotiations were under way to “resolve the existing issues”, so full ties could be restored. It is unclear what effect, if any, the arrest of the alleged spy would have in those negotiations.
Prof Ali Ansari, the director of the Institute for Iranian Studies at the University of St Andrews and a senior associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute, said: “This probably has more to do with some of the more hawkish and hardline elements within the revolutionary establishment trying to put a spanner in the works of the rapprochement negotiations.
“The Iranian regime has done a fantastic PR job over the last couple of months selling the country as being ‘open for business’. But this news sours that, and suggests the old Iran is alive and well.”
He added: “Kerman is in the middle of nowhere, there’s no nuclear facilities there and all they do is grow pistachios. So what this man could be accused of doing there is a little strange.”
Britain shut its Tehran embassy after it was damaged in November 2011 by students protesting against Western sanctions.
In another high-profile incident, in 2007, Iran seized 15 personnel from HMS Cornwall who were on anti-drug smuggling operations in the Gulf, and held them for 13 days. Their detention gave Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the then Iranian president, a public relations coup.
By David Barrett, and Robert Tait, in Jerusalem
8:00PM GMT 14 Dec 2013
Find this story at 14 December 2013
© Copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited 2013
Missing American in Iran was on unapproved mission<< oudere artikelen
December 23, 2013
WASHINGTON (AP) — In March 2007, retired FBI agent Robert Levinson flew to Kish Island, an Iranian resort awash with tourists, smugglers and organized crime figures. Days later, after an arranged meeting with an admitted killer, he checked out of his hotel, slipped into a taxi and vanished. For years, the U.S. has publicly described him as a private citizen who traveled to the tiny Persian Gulf island on private business.
But that was just a cover story. An Associated Press investigation reveals that Levinson was working for the CIA. In an extraordinary breach of the most basic CIA rules, a team of analysts — with no authority to run spy operations — paid Levinson to gather intelligence from some of the world’s darkest corners. He vanished while investigating the Iranian government for the U.S.
The CIA was slow to respond to Levinson’s disappearance and spent the first several months denying any involvement. When Congress eventually discovered what happened, one of the biggest scandals in recent CIA history erupted.
Behind closed doors, three veteran analysts were forced out of the agency and seven others were disciplined. The CIA paid Levinson’s family $2.5 million to pre-empt a revealing lawsuit, and the agency rewrote its rules restricting how analysts can work with outsiders.
But even after the White House, FBI and State Department officials learned of Levinson’s CIA ties, the official story remained unchanged.
“He’s a private citizen involved in private business in Iran,” the State Department said in 2007, shortly after Levinson’s disappearance.
“Robert Levinson went missing during a business trip to Kish Island, Iran,” the White House said last month.
Details of the unusual disappearance were described in documents obtained or reviewed by the AP, plus interviews over several years with dozens of current and former U.S. and foreign officials close to the search for Levinson. Nearly all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the sensitive case.
The AP first confirmed Levinson’s CIA ties in 2010 and continued reporting to uncover more details. It agreed three times to delay publishing the story because the U.S. government said it was pursuing promising leads to get him home.
The AP is reporting the story now because, nearly seven years after his disappearance, those efforts have repeatedly come up empty. The government has not received any sign of life in nearly three years. Top U.S. officials, meanwhile, say his captors almost certainly already know about his CIA association.
There has been no hint of Levinson’s whereabouts since his family received proof-of-life photos and a video in late 2010 and early 2011. That prompted a hopeful burst of diplomacy between the United States and Iran, but as time dragged on, promising leads dried up and the trail went cold.
Some in the U.S. government believe he is dead. But in the absence of evidence either way, the government holds out hope that he is alive and the FBI says it remains committed to bringing him home.
If Levinson remains alive at age 65, he has been held captive longer than any American, longer than AP journalist Terry Anderson, who was held more than six years in Beirut. Unlike Anderson, Levinson’s whereabouts and captors remain a mystery.
Today, Iran and United States tiptoe toward warmer relations and a deal over Iran’s nuclear enrichment. But the U.S. has no new leads about Levinson’s whereabouts, officials said. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani publicly says he has no information about Levinson’s whereabouts.
Meanwhile, the story of how the married father of seven children from Coral Springs, Fla., became part of the CIA’s spy war with Iran has been cloaked in secrecy, with no public accounting for the agency’s mistakes.
A 28-year veteran of the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI, Robert Levinson had a natural ability to cultivate informants. Former colleagues say he was an easy conversationalist who had the patience to draw out people and win their confidence. He’d talk to anyone.
“Bob, in that sense, was fearless,” said retired FBI Assistant Director Mark Mershon, who worked with Levinson in Miami in the 1980s. “He wasn’t concerned about being turned down or turned away.”
As the Soviet Union collapsed, Levinson turned his attention away from Mafia bosses and cocaine cartels and began watching the Russian gangsters who made their homes in Florida. Russian organized crime was a niche then and Levinson made a name as one of the few investigators who understood it.
At a Justice Department organized crime conference in Santa Fe, N.M., in the early 1990s, Levinson listened to a presentation by a CIA analyst named Anne Jablonski and spotted a kindred spirit.
Jablonski was perhaps the government’s foremost expert on Russian organized crime. Former colleagues say she had an encyclopedic memory and could, at the mere mention of a crime figure, quickly explain his place in the hierarchy and his method of moving money. When White House officials had questions about Russian organized crime, they often called Jablonski directly.
In the relatively staid world of CIA analysts, Jablonski was also a quirky character, a yoga devotee who made her own cat food, a woman who skipped off to Las Vegas to renew her vows in an Elvis-themed chapel.
After the Santa Fe conference, Levinson left a note for Jablonski at her hotel and the two began exchanging thoughts on organized crime. Jablonski invited Levinson to CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., to speak to her colleagues in the Office of Russian and European Analysis.
By the time Levinson retired from the FBI in 1998, he and Jablonski were close friends. She attended his going-away party in Florida, met his family and harvested his knowledge of organized crime.
In retirement, Levinson worked as a private investigator, traveling the world and gathering information for corporate clients. Jablonski, meanwhile, thrived at the CIA. After the Sept. 11 attacks, former colleagues say, she was assigned to brief Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller about terrorist threats every morning.
In 2005, Jablonski moved to the Office of Transnational Issues, the CIA team that tracks threats across borders. Right away, she arranged for Levinson to speak to the money-laundering experts in the office’s Illicit Finance Group.
In a sixth-floor CIA conference room, Levinson explained how to track dirty money. Unlike the analysts in the audience, Levinson came from the field. He generated his own information.
In June 2006, the head of Illicit Finance, Tim Sampson, hired Levinson on a contract with the CIA, former officials said. Like most CIA contracts, it was not a matter of public record. But it also wasn’t classified.
At its core, the CIA is made up of two groups: operatives and analysts. Operatives collect intelligence and recruit spies. Analysts receive strands of information and weave them together, making sense of the world for Washington decision-makers.
Their responsibilities don’t overlap. Operatives manage spies. Analysts don’t.
Levinson was hired to work for a team of analysts. His contract, worth about $85,000, called for him to write reports for the CIA based on his travel and his expertise.
From the onset, however, he was doing something very different. He wasn’t writing scholarly dissertations on the intricacies of money laundering. He was gathering intelligence, officials say.
He uncovered sensitive information about Colombian rebels. He dug up dirt on Venezuela’s mercurial president. He delivered photos and documents on militant groups. And he met with sources about Iran’s nuclear program, according to people who have reviewed the materials.
Levinson’s production got noticed. The CIA expected he’d provide one or two items a month from his travels. Some months, former officials said, Levinson would send 20 packages including photos, computer disks and documents — the work of a man with decades of investigative experience.
Levinson’s arrangement with the CIA was odd.
The agency instructed him not to mail his packages to headquarters or email documents to government addresses, former officials said. Instead, he was told to ship his packages to Jablonski’s home in Virginia. If he needed to follow up, he was instructed to contact Jablonski’s personal email account.
Jablonski said the analysts simply wanted to avoid the CIA’s lengthy mail screening process. As an employee, Jablonski could just drive the documents through the front gate each morning.
“I didn’t think twice about it,” she said in an interview.
But the normal way to speed up the process is to open a post office box or send packages by FedEx, officials say. And if Levinson were producing only unclassified analytical documents, there would have been no reason he couldn’t email them to the CIA.
The whole arrangement was so peculiar that CIA investigators conducting an internal probe would later conclude it was an effort to keep top CIA officials from figuring out that the analysts were running a spying operation. Jablonski adamantly denies that.
What’s more, the Illicit Finance Group didn’t follow the typical routine for international travel. Before someone travels abroad for the agency, the top CIA officer in the country normally clears it. That way, if a CIA employee is arrested or creates a diplomatic incident, the agency isn’t caught by surprise.
That didn’t happen before Levinson’s trips, former officials said. He journeyed to Panama, Turkey and Canada and was paid upon his return, people familiar with his travels said. After each trip, he submitted bills and the CIA paid him for the information and reimbursed him for his travel expenses.
Neither the analysts nor the contract officers or managers who reviewed the contract, ever flagged it as a problem that Levinson’s travel might become a problem.
It would prove to be a serious problem.
Levinson was assigned a contract officer inside the agency, a young analyst named Brian O’Toole. But Jablonski was always his primary contact. Sometimes, he told her before he left for a trip. Other times, he didn’t. The emails between Jablonski and Levinson, some of which the AP has seen or obtained, are circumspect. But they show that Levinson was taking his cues from her.
The more Levinson did for the agency, the more the analysts ran afoul of the CIA’s most basic rules.
Before anyone can meet sources, seasoned CIA intelligence officials must review the plan to make sure the source isn’t a double agent. That never happened for Levinson.
Levinson’s meetings blurred the lines between his work as a private investigator and his work as a government contractor. Inside the CIA, the analysts reasoned that as long as they didn’t specifically assign Levinson to meet someone, they were abiding by the rules.
On Feb. 5, 2007, Levinson emailed Jablonski and said he was gathering intelligence on Iranian corruption. He said he was developing an informant with access to the government and could arrange a meeting in Dubai or on an island nearby.
Problem was, Levinson’s contract was out of money and, though the CIA was working to authorize more, it had yet to do so.
“I would like to know if I do, in fact, expend my own funds to conduct this meeting, there will be reimbursement sometime in the near future, or, if I should discontinue this, as well as any and all similar projects until renewal time in May,” Levinson wrote.
There’s no evidence that Jablonski ever responded to that email. And she says she has no recollection of ever receiving it.
A few days later, Levinson joined Jablonski and her husband for dinner at Harry’s Tap Room in the Washington suburbs. Levinson was days away from his trip, and though he was eager to get paid for it, Jablonski says the subject never came up in conversation.
The discussion was more light-hearted, she said. She recalls scolding her overweight friend for not eating right, especially while on the road. At one point she recalls chiding him: “If I were your wife, I’d confiscate your passport.”
On Feb. 12, Levinson again emailed Jablonski, saying he hadn’t heard anything from the contract office. Jablonski urged him not to get the contract team involved.
“Probably best if we keep talk about the additional money among us girls — you, me, Tim and Brian — and not get the contracts folks involved until they’ve been officially notified through channels,” Jablonski said, according to emails read to the AP.
Jablonski signed off: “Be safe.”
Levinson said he understood. He said he’d try to make this trip as successful as previous ones. And he promised to “keep a low profile.”
“I’ll call you upon my return from across the pond,” he said.
While Levinson was overseas, the CIA was raving about information Levinson had recent sent about Venezuela and Colombian rebels.
“You hit a home run out of the park with that stuff,” she wrote. “We can’t, of course, task you on anything, but let’s just say it’s GREAT material.”
Levinson arrived in Dubai on March 3, 2007. Friends and investigators say he was investigating cigarette smuggling and also looking into Russian organized crime there.
On March 8, he boarded a short flight to Kish Island, a tourist destination about 11 miles off Iran’s southern coast. Unlike the Dubai trip, this one was solely for the CIA. He was there to meet his source about Iran.
The biggest prize would be gleaning something about Iran’s nuclear program, one of the CIA’s most important targets.
Levinson’s source on Kish was Dawud Salahuddin, an American fugitive wanted for killing a former Iranian diplomat in Maryland in 1980. In interviews with ABC News and the New Yorker, Salahuddin has admitted killing the diplomat
Since fleeing to Iran, Salahuddin had become close to some in the Iranian government, particularly to those seen as reformers and moderates.
To set up the meeting, Levinson worked with a longtime friend, retired NBC investigative reporter Ira Silverman. Silverman had talked at length with Salahuddin and, in a 2002 piece for the New Yorker magazine, portrayed him as a potential intelligence source if the U.S. could coax him out of Iran. The subtitle of the article: “He’s an assassin who fled the country. Could he help Washington now?”
“I told them to put off until after the U.S. surge in Iraq was completed,” Salahuddin told the National Security News Service, a Washington news site, shortly after Levinson disappeared. “But Silverman and Levinson pushed for the meeting and that’s why we met in March.”
Silverman’s role in helping set up Levinson’s meeting with Salahuddin has been previously disclosed. Silverman declined to discuss Levinson’s disappearance.
Levinson’s flight landed late the morning of March 8, a breezy, cloudy day. He checked into the Hotel Maryam, a few blocks off Kish’s eastern beaches. Salahuddin has said he met with Levinson for hours in his hotel room.
The hotel’s registry, which Levinson’s wife has seen, showed him checking out on March 9, 2007.
Jablonski was in the office when news broke that Levinson had gone missing. She went to the bathroom and threw up.
FBI agents began asking about Levinson’s disappearance and the CIA started a formal inquiry into whether anyone at the agency had sent Levinson to Iran or whether he was working for the CIA at the time.
The response from the analytical division was that, yes, Levinson had given a few presentations and had done some analytical work. But his contract was out of money. The agency had no current relationship with Levinson and there was no connection to Iran.
That’s what the CIA told the FBI and Congress, according to numerous current and former FBI, CIA and congressional officials.
Jablonski never mentioned to internal investigators the many emails she’d traded with Levinson, officials close to the investigation said. When asked, she said she had no idea he was heading to Iran. She didn’t tell managers or that Levinson expected to be reimbursed for the trip he was on, or that he was investigating Iranian corruption.
Jablonski says none of this was a secret; Levinson’s contract and work product were available to others at the CIA, she said.
Because the emails were exchanged from her personal account, they were not available to investigators searching the CIA’s computers. But had anyone at the CIA or FBI conducted even a cursory examination of Levinson’s work product, it would have been immediately clear that Levinson was not acting as a mere analyst.
Had anyone read his invoices, people who have seen or been briefed on them said, investigators would have seen handwritten bills mentioning Iran and its Revolutionary Guard.
That didn’t happen.
So the official story became that Levinson was in Iran on private business, either to investigate cigarette smuggling or to work on a book about Russian organized crime, which has a presence on Kish.
At the State Department, officials told the world that Levinson was a private businessman.
“At the time of his disappearance Mr. Levinson was not working for the United States government,” the State Department said in a May 2007 message sent to embassies worldwide and signed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Levinson’s family feared the government had forsaken him.
The government’s version would have remained the official story if not for Levinson’s friends. One of them was David McGee, a former Justice Department prosecutor in Florida who had worked with Levinson when he was at the FBI. McGee, now in private practice at the Florida law firm Beggs and Lane, knew that Levinson was working for the CIA. He just couldn’t prove it.
As time dragged on, McGee kept digging. Finally, he and his paralegal, Sonya Dobbs, discovered Levinson’s emails with Jablonski.
They were astounded. And they finally had the proof they needed to get the government’s attention.
Armed with the emails, McGee wrote to the Senate Intelligence Committee in October 2007. The CIA had indeed been involved in Levinson’s trip, the letter proved.
The CIA had been caught telling Congress a story that was flatly untrue. The Intelligence Committee was furious. In particular, Levinson’s senator, Bill Nelson, D-Fla., took a personal interest in the case. The committee controls the budget of the CIA, and one angry senator there can mean months of headaches for the agency.
CIA managers said their own employees had lied to them. They blamed the analysts for not coming forward sooner. But the evidence had been hiding in plain sight. The CIA didn’t conduct a thorough investigation until the Senate got involved. By then, Levinson had been missing for more than eight months. Precious time had been lost.
Sampson said he was never aware of Levinson’s emails with Jablonski or the Iranian trip.
“I didn’t even know he was working on Iran,” he said. “As far as I knew he was a Latin America, money-laundering and Russian organized crime guy. I would never have directed him to do that.”
Finally, the CIA assigned its internal security team to investigate. That inquiry quickly determined that the agency was responsible for Levinson while he was in Iran, according to a former official familiar with the review. That was an important conclusion. It meant that, whatever happened to Levinson overseas, the CIA bore responsibility.
Next, a team of counterintelligence officers began unraveling the case.
The investigation renewed some longtime tensions between the CIA’s operatives and analysts. The investigators felt the analysts had been running their own amateur spy operation, with disastrous results. Worse, they said the analysts withheld what they knew, allowing senior managers to testify falsely on Capitol Hill.
That led the Justice Department to investigate possible criminal charges against Jablonski and Sampson. Charges were never pursued, current and former officials said, in part because a criminal case could have revealed the whole story behind Levinson’s disappearance. Officially, though, the investigation remains open.
Sampson offered to take a polygraph. Jablonski says she has consistently told the truth. Recently, as the five-year statute of limitations concluded, FBI agents interviewed her again and she told the same story, officials said.
The analysts argued that many people had seen Levinson’s contract and his work product. Nobody questioned it until he went missing, they said. The way the analysts saw it, the CIA was looking for scapegoats.
“That she would even by accident put someone in harm’s way is laughable,” said Margaret Henoch, a former CIA officer and a close friend of Jablonski. “When I worked with Anne, and I worked very closely with her for a very long time, she was always the one who pulled me up short and made me follow procedure.”
Jablonski said the CIA’s relationship with Levinson was not unusual. But as part of the investigation, the CIA reviewed every analytical contract it had.
Only Levinson was meeting with sources, collecting information, and getting reimbursed for his trips, officials said. Only Levinson was mailing packages of raw information to the home of an analyst.
Despite Jablonski’s denials, her emails convinced investigators that she knew Levinson was heading overseas and, with a wink and a nod, made it clear he could expect to be paid.
In May 2008, Jablonski was escorted from the building and put on administrative leave. Sampson was next. At the CIA, when you’re shown the door, you leave with nothing. Security officers empty your desk, scrutinize its contents and mail you whatever doesn’t belong to the agency.
Both were given the option of resigning or being fired. The next month, they resigned. Their boss was forced into retirement. At least seven others were disciplined, including employees of the contracts office that should have noticed that Levinson’s invoices didn’t square with his contract.
In secret Senate hearings from late 2007 through early 2008, CIA Deputy Director Stephen Kappes acknowledged that the agency had been involved in Levinson’s disappearance and conceded that it hadn’t been as forthcoming as it should have been, current and former officials said.
The CIA’s top lawyer, John Rizzo, had to explain it all to the White House. Former Bush administration officials recall Rizzo meeting with a stunned Fred Fielding, the White House counsel who asked, since when do CIA analysts get involved in operations?
One of Rizzo’s assistants, Joseph Sweeney, a lawyer, flew to Florida to apologize to Levinson’s family.
The CIA paid the family about $120,000, the value of the new contract the CIA was preparing for him when he left for Iran. The government also gave the family a $2.5 million annuity, which provides tax-free income, multiple people briefed on the deal said. Neither side wanted a lawsuit that would air the secret details in public.
Jablonski now analyzes risk for companies doing business overseas.
Sampson, the former head of CIA’s Illicit Finance group, quickly returned to the government, landing a job at the Department of Homeland Security’s intelligence division. O’Toole, the young contracts officer, moved to the Treasury Department. He would not comment.
Inside the CIA, the biggest legacy of the Levinson case might be the strict new rules in place for analysts. Before, analysts were encouraged to build relationships with experts. An analyst could go to dinner with a professor of Middle East affairs or pick up the phone and chat with a foreign affairs expert. The 9/11 Commission encouraged CIA analysts to do even more to solicit outside views.
After the Levinson inquiry, the CIA handed down orders requiring analysts to seek approval for nearly any conversation with outsiders. The rules were intended to prevent another debacle like Levinson’s, but former officials say they also chilled efforts to bring outside views into the CIA.
The U.S. always suspected, but could never prove, that Levinson had been picked up by Iranian security forces. What was not immediately clear, however, was whether Iran knew that Levinson was working for the CIA.
Now, nearly than seven years later, investigators believe Iranian authorities must know. Levinson wasn’t trained to resist interrogation. U.S. officials could not imagine him withholding information from Iranian interrogators, who have been accused of the worst types of mental and physical abuses.
In an October 2010 interview with the AP, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran at the time, said his country was willing to help find Levinson. But he appeared to suggest he knew or had suspicions that Levinson was working for the U.S. government.
“Of course if it becomes clear what his goal was, or if he was indeed on a mission, then perhaps specific assistance can be given,” Ahmadinejad said. “For example, if he had plans to visit with a group or an individual or go to another country, he would be easier to trace in that instance.”
As a CIA contractor, Levinson would have been a valuable chip to bargain with on the world stage. So if Iran had captured him, and knew his CIA ties, why the secrecy?
That question became even more confusing in 2009, when three U.S. hikers strayed across border from Iraq into Iran and were arrested. If Iran had captured Levinson, investigators wondered, why would it publicly accuse three hikers of espionage while keeping quiet about an actual CIA contractor?
Occasionally, Iranian defectors would claim to have seen Levinson or to have heard where he was being held, according to his family, former officials and State Department cables published by WikiLeaks.
A French doctor said Levinson was treated at his hospital in Tehran. An Iranian nurse claimed to have attended to him. One defector said he saw Levinson’s name scrawled into a prison door frame. Someone sent Levinson’s family what appeared to be secret Iranian court documents with his name on them.
But the U.S. could never confirm any of these accounts or corroborate the documents.
Occasionally, the family would hear from someone claiming to be the captor. Once, someone sent an email not only to the family, but also to other addresses that might have been stored on Levinson’s phone. But despite efforts to try to start negotiating, the sender went silent.
The State Department continued its calls on Iran to release information about Levinson’s whereabouts. Then, in November 2010, Levinson’s wife Christine received an email from an unknown address. A file was attached, but it would not open.
Frantic, she sent the email to some computer savvy friends, who opened the file and held the phone to the computer. Christine Levinson immediately recognized her husband’s voice.
“My beautiful, my loving, my loyal wife, Christine,” he began.
The 54-second video showed Levinson sitting in front of a concrete wall, looking haggard but unharmed. He said he was running dangerously low of diabetes medicine, and he pleaded with the government to bring him home.
“Thirty-three years of service to the United States deserves something,” Levinson said. “Please help me.”
The video was a startling proof of life and it ignited the first promising round of diplomacy since Levinson’s disappearance. U.S. officials met privately with members of the Iranian government to discuss the case. The Iranians still denied any knowledge of Levinson’s whereabouts but said they were willing to help, U.S. officials said.
Some details about the video didn’t add up, though. The email had been sent from a cyber cafe in Pakistan, officials said, and Pashtun wedding music played faintly in the background. The Pashtun people live primarily in Pakistan and Afghanistan, just across Iran’s eastern border.
Further, the video was accompanied by a demand that the U.S. release prisoners. But officials said the United States was not holding anyone matching the names on the list.
In March 2011, after months of trying to negotiate with shadows, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton released a statement saying the U.S. had evidence that Levinson was being held “somewhere in southwest Asia.” The implication was that Levinson might be in the hands of terrorist group or criminal organization somewhere in Pakistan or Afghanistan, not necessarily in Iran.
U.S. intelligence officials working the case still believed Iran was behind Levinson’s disappearance, but they hoped Clinton’s statement would offer a plausible alternative story if Iran wanted to release him without acknowledging it ever held him.
U.S. negotiators didn’t care what the story was, as long as it ended with Levinson coming home.
The following month, the family received another email, this time from a new address, one that tracked back to Afghanistan. Photos were attached. Levinson looked far worse. His hair and beard were long and white. He wore an orange Guantanamo Bay-style jumpsuit. A chain around his neck held a sign in front of his face. Each picture bore a different message.
“Why you can not help me,” was one.
Though the photos were disturbing, the U.S. government and Levinson’s family saw them as a hopeful sign that whoever was holding Levinson was interested in making a deal. Then, a surprising thing happened.
Nobody is sure why the contact stopped. Some believe that, if Iran held him, all the government wanted was for the United States to tell the world that Levinson might not be in Iran after all. Others believe Levinson died.
Iran executes hundreds of prisoners each year, human rights groups say. Many others disappear and are presumed dead. With Levinson’s history of diabetes and high blood pressure, it was also possible he died under questioning.
The discussions with Iran ended. A task force of CIA, FBI and State Department officials studied the case anew. Analysts considered alternative theories. Maybe Levinson was captured by Russian organized crime figures, smugglers or terrorists? They investigated connections between Russian and Iranian oil interests.
But each time, they came back to Iran.
For example, during one meeting between the U.S. and Iran, the Iranians said they were searching for Levinson and were conducting raids in Baluchistan, a mountainous region that includes parts of Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan, U.S. officials said. But the U.S. ultimately concluded that there were no raids, and officials determined that the episode was a ruse by the Iranians to learn how U.S. intelligence agencies work.
Then, U.S. operatives in Afghanistan traced the hostage photos to a cellphone used to transmit them, officials said. They even tracked down the owner, but concluded he had nothing to do with sending them.
Such abrupt dead ends were indicative of a professional intelligence operation, the U.S. concluded. Whoever sent the photos and videos had made no mistakes. Mobsters and terrorists are seldom so careful.
Iran denies any knowledge of Levinson’s whereabouts and says it’s doing all it can.
This past June, Iran elected Hassan Rouhani as president. He has struck a more moderate tone than his predecessor, sparking hope for warmer relations between Iran and the West. But Rouhani’s statements on Levinson were consistent with Ahmadinejad’s.
“He is an American who has disappeared,” Rouhani told CNN in September. “We have no news of him. We do not know where he is.”
Back home in Florida, Christine Levinson works to keep her husband’s name in the news and pushes the Obama administration to do more. Last year, the FBI offered a reward of $1 million for information leading to the return of her husband. But the money hasn’t worked.
In their big, tight-knit family, Bob Levinson has missed many birthdays, weddings, anniversaries and grandchildren.
Levinson was always the breadwinner, the politically savvy investigator who understood national security. Now it is his wife who has traveled to Iran seeking information on her husband, who has meetings on Capitol Hill or with White House officials. They are kind and reassuring.
But nothing changes.
Others held in Iran have returned home. Not her husband.
“There isn’t any pressure on Iran to resolve this,” she said in January, frustrated with what she said was a lack of attention by Washington. “It’s been much too long.”
By MATT APUZZO and ADAM GOLDMAN
— Dec. 12, 2013 9:26 PM EST
Find this story at 12 December 2013
P News | © 2013 Associated Press