CIA Looks to Los Angeles for Would-Be Iranian Spies

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dissatisfied with its intelligence gathering on Iran, the CIA disbanded a station in Germany in the mid-1990s that had been a key spying portal into the Islamic republic.

Instead, it reassigned several of its officers to a post much farther from Tehran but potentially richer in contacts: Los Angeles.

In Germany, the agency "had eight or 10 people basically waiting for the phone to ring," said a former CIA officer familiar with the redeployment. "We had to pursue the Iranian target better and acknowledge the fact that Los Angeles" has the largest Iranian population of any city outside Iran.

Indeed, Southern California is home to hundreds of thousands of people of Iranian descent, many of whom continue to travel to Iran, have business connections there or relatives in position to provide valuable information from inside the largely impenetrable republic.

Former CIA officers said the agency has been actively trying to recruit informants in Los Angeles, offering cash for useful information and even launching some covert operations, including a planned satellite broadcast into Tehran secretly funded by the CIA.

Since Sept. 11, the CIA has attracted attention for the unusually high-profile role it is playing in Afghanistan, as well as for its efforts to unravel terrorist cells around the globe.

But the CIA's previously undisclosed effort to tap into the Iranian community in Los Angeles shows that part of the agency's war on terrorism will be conducted at home. Iran is considered the most active state sponsor of terrorism.

The Los Angeles program provides a rare glimpse into the CIA's "domestic collections" activities, which are more extensive than generally understood and are poised to expand with new funding and powers from Congress.

The CIA would not discuss the activities of its National Resources Division on grounds that disclosure of such a program "is not helpful to U.S. national security." But former intelligence officials familiar with the program say it is extensive and exists in most major urban areas.

When asked where the CIA has a significant clandestine presence in the United States, one former staff member of the National Security Council in the Clinton White House replied simply: "NFL cities."

One of the CIA's largest domestic posts was exposed last year when the agency's New York station, which had been housed in the World Trade Center complex, was destroyed by the Sept. 11 attacks. No agency employees were killed in the attack, a CIA official said.

Since the 1970s, the CIA's domestic role has been strictly governed by laws designed to prevent the notorious abuses uncovered when the agency was caught spying on campus radicals and other citizens in violation of its charter as a collector of foreign intelligence.

The CIA is not allowed to monitor U.S. citizens or permanent residents in this country, for example. Other U.S. intelligence agencies may conduct electronic surveillance domestically only with the permission of a special foreign intelligence court, and only when there is probable cause that the target is an agent of a foreign power. Most domestic surveillance functions are the domain of the FBI.

But the CIA still has considerable latitude to collect intelligence from Americans willing to provide it, recruit foreign nationals within the United States and support covert operations.

Anti-terrorism legislation recently passed by Congress boosts the CIA's domestic intelligence-gathering capabilities. The legislation, dubbed the Patriot Act by Congress, gives the CIA director authority to set "priorities" for the FBI's domestic surveillance efforts.

A senior CIA official said that provision codifies existing practice and gives no expanded authority. But the law also eliminates restrictions that prevented the FBI from sharing the "take" from its wiretaps and other surveillance with the CIA.

In effect, experts say, the CIA will have a greater ability to have the FBI do its domestic intelligence bidding, a development that alarms some critics.

"When it was created in 1947, the CIA was specifically denied any domestic police or subpoena powers, and Congress was obviously very adamant in saying it was creating a foreign intelligence agency," said James X. Dempsey, deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington-based civil liberties group. "That line was in many respects obliterated through the Patriot Act."

But at a time when security has become the priority of a newly nervous nation, many believe that line could--and perhaps should--be eroded further. Many in Washington consider the Sept. 11 attacks a major intelligence failure.

Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said he expects to see at least some debate in the coming year on whether the United States should have a domestic intelligence service, as many other developed nations already do.

Goss said he doesn't favor such a proposal but expects it to get a more receptive hearing than would have been thinkable a year ago. After the attacks of Sept. 11, Goss said, the national mood "changed just like that."

Success Recruiting Foreign Students

The agency's domestic collection efforts have had mixed results. "I can't remember any great home runs I could ever connect to domestic collection," said John Gannon, a 24-year employee of the CIA who was chairman of the National Intelligence Council before his retirement in June.

But the agency has had considerable success, he said, recruiting foreign students and other visitors to America, who return to their home countries and provide valuable information for the United States. "The CIA has done quite well on recruitment," said Gannon, now vice chairman of Intellibridge, a Washington-based corporate intelligence firm.

The agency's domestic interests are predictable, several sources said. On the West Coast, CIA stations are largely focused on collecting intelligence on China and other Pacific Rim countries. In Detroit, the focus is the substantial population of Middle Easterners. New York is an international smorgasbord, with hundreds of diplomats at the United Nations, a prominent Russian population and local communities representing more than 170 other countries and cultures.

Southern California is similarly diverse, but former CIA officers said the agency's Los Angeles station has made a particular effort to tap Southern California's Iranian population. At least one of the CIA's officers in Los Angeles is a fluent Farsi speaker, a former agency officer said.

Iran has been an active front--and source of some embarrassment--for the CIA for decades. The agency was secretly behind a coup in 1953 that installed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and was criticized for failing to anticipate the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The U.S. State Department ranks Iran as the most active state sponsor of terrorism. Tehran backs Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations, and has been linked to the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. servicemen. Last week, Israeli authorities intercepted what they said was a weapon shipment from Iran to Palestinian militants. And many experts believe Iran could be the next nation to develop nuclear weapon capability.

There have been recent signs of thawing in the U.S.-Iran relationship, and White House officials have said Tehran has been cooperative in the war in Afghanistan. But last week, reacting to reports that Arabs and Al Qaeda fighters have fled into Iran, President Bush warned Tehran against harboring terrorists and war criminals.

Intelligence on Iran is extremely difficult to obtain because it is a closed Islamic society with which the United States has not had diplomatic relations for more than two decades. Former CIA officials said Iran is what's known in the agency as a "denied area," meaning the agency has no presence inside the country.

As a result, the United States depends heavily on satellite surveillance and the interception of radio transmissions and other signals. For human intelligence, the CIA is largely forced to focus on Iranian populations outside the country, and none is bigger than that of Los Angeles.

Though Southern California's Persian population is largely composed of families of expatriates who fled Iran when the shah was overthrown, many still travel to the country and have family or business ties there.

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

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

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

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

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

It is not clear to what extent the CIA's operation in Los Angeles has succeeded. Former CIA officials familiar with the operation said they had left the agency or were reassigned to other areas before the program was fully established. The CIA's station chief in Los Angeles did not return calls seeking comment.

Prominent members of the Iranian community in Los Angeles said they weren't aware of the CIA's presence. "I haven't heard of it," said Syrus Sharafshahi, publisher and editor of Sobh-Iran, one of two leading Farsi-language newspapers in Southern California.

Many prominent Iranians in Los Angeles said they were skeptical that such an effort by the CIA would be fruitful but were not surprised or offended that the agency would try.

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

Iran Tries to Recruit Spies in U.S. Too

The Iranian intelligence service is also active in the United States, former CIA officials said, paying close attention to--and trying to recruit spies within--an expatriate community that includes many people eager to see the republic toppled.

The republic "regards it as a hostile emigre community," said a former CIA officer with experience in Iran. "They will attempt to recruit in that community for defensive purposes or because they want them to spy for Iran." Expatriates who travel back to Iran are often interrogated upon arrival, said an Iranian scholar in the United States who asked not to be identified. "They're astonished at the amount of information that is already on hand about them."

Travelers are often confronted with details from their homes to give the impression that Iranian intelligence is omniscient, he said. "It's the usual interrogators' tricks," he said. "They'll say, 'You have pictures of the shah on your mantle, don't you?' "

The CIA is not above playing its own mind games with Iran. Several years ago, a former agency officer said, the CIA funded the creation of a satellite broadcast designed to bombard Tehran with Persian programming from Los Angeles, including newscasts and stand-up comedy segments poking fun at the republic's leaders.

The effort was scrapped within a year, the former officer said, amid resistance from members of Congress skeptical that such broadcasts were worth the cost. But the program has since been supplanted by at least three privately funded satellite broadcasts into Iran by Los Angeles companies.

The channels air a mix of news, comedy and entertainment that have found a sizable following in Iran, where satellite dishes are abundant even though they are outlawed.

Some credited the broadcasts with helping to incite pro-democracy protests in the country several months ago. The uprising was followed by a crackdown in which Iranian police combed neighborhoods in Tehran, confiscating satellite dishes and doling out fines.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
66°