Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Report: CIA Made AWOL Iranian Scientist a YouTube Star

Shahram Amiri, the long-missing Iranian nuclear scientist who may or may not have defected to the United States, is headed back to Tehran. But, as a State Department spokesman once joked, he’ll forever live on YouTube. And apparently the CIA helped make sure of it.

Recall that people claiming to be Amiri have uploaded at least two videos to YouTube giving alleged first-person accounts of his ordeal. (Amiri has yet to make a public appearance, though once he arrives in Tehran, he’s expected to, perhaps as soon as Thursday.)

On one of them, a grainy number broadcast on Iranian state TV, “Amiri” describes being kidnapped by the CIA and the Saudi intelligence service during a spring 2009 trip to Mecca, subjected to mental torture and taken to Tucson. In the other, higher-quality video, “Amiri” wears a tweed-looking jacket and recounts how he’s now an exchange student in the United States, not a traitor to Iran — and, implicitly, not a torture victim.

Why the discrepancy in quality between the two videos? According to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference in the Washington Post’s tick-tock of the Amiri denoument, anonymous U.S. officials said the “more polished video” was “crafted with help from the CIA.”

CIA officials have yet to return our requests for comment and clarification, and we’ll update when they do. But if the agency indeed helped Amiri film the video, they opted against subtlety. The account from which the video uploaded, Shahramamiri2010, screams “These are my current whereabouts.” (It also doesn’t have any other videos to its credit.) More importantly, the background features a globe and a chessboard, as if to say, “I am a pawn in an elaborate geopolitical game.”

Why would the CIA send such a message? Who knows? Very little about this story makes sense so far. And according to Jim Risen of the New York Times, a freak e-mail accident compromised most of the CIA’s spy network in Iran a decade ago, something that helped shift U.S. intelligence efforts at retarding Iran’s nuclear progress to focus on wrecking its underground nuke supply chain.

Should Amiri actually have defected, he would have likely have been among the agency’s top human-intelligence assets.

And so the broader message that’s in the United States’ interest to send, as an anonymous “U.S. official” blast-e-mail to reporters yesterday, is one that “gives the lie to the idea he was tortured or imprisoned.” That’s quite a live issue, given the agency’s recent history of operating brutal off-the-books detention camps — which President Obama formally banned within days of taking office. Why, a man who wears tweed and talks calmly into a camera couldn’t have been mistreated!

Update, 12:35 p.m.: A couple years ago, Danger Room wrote about the CIA producing the classic animated version of Animal Farm during the Cold War — Langley is a den of socialists! — so Amiri’s YouTube fame is merely a 21st century version of the agency’s longtime filmic enterprises. Meanwhile, Josh Rogin at The Cable has the most comprehensive account available of Amiri’s side of the story.


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