Sometimes, It’s a Simple Game of Spy Versus Spy

Thomas Patrick Carroll is a former officer in the clandestine service of the CIA. E-mail:

The government of Iran is oppressive, corrupt, feared by its neighbors and increasingly hated by its own people. But let’s give credit where credit is due -- those ayatollahs surely know how to run a secret intelligence service.

According to press reports citing sources inside the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, the DIA believes the Information Collection Program of Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress was a front for Iranian intelligence. The program stands accused of handing over secret U.S. intelligence to the Iranians while at the same time passing Iranian disinformation back to the Americans. The purpose, according to the charges, was to provoke a U.S. attack on Saddam Hussein, Iran’s deadliest regional foe. And because the U.S. gave millions of dollars to the program, Washington funded the Iranian deception operation.

If this is true (and in the murky world of espionage, “if” is the most important qualifier), the Iranians have pulled off one of the greatest covert operations in modern history. To find something comparable, we probably need to go back to 1923 and “Operation Trust,” the brilliant deception orchestrated by Vladimir I. Lenin’s OGPU, a forerunner of the KGB. Operation Trust created a phony white Russian group called the Monarchist Assn. of Central Russia.

The group presented itself to European governments as an anti-Bolshevik resistance organization operating inside the Soviet Union and quickly had the Westerners conned. At a time when the nascent Soviet Union was starving for cash, the intelligence services of Britain, France, Poland, Finland and other anti-communist countries channeled hard currency to the association, unaware the money was actually going to the Bolsheviks. Worse, the association was able to lure genuine anti-Soviet resistance fighters to their deaths. The Soviets kept the ruse going for six years before they were found out.


How likely is it that Iranian intelligence put together a modern-day Operation Trust? Now, it’s impossible to know for sure, but it is certainly plausible, and this plausibility reveals something important about the power of our adversaries.

Even though Iran’s espionage operations are well funded, the U.S. intelligence community definitely has the Iranians beat when it comes to high-tech resources like satellites. Unfortunately, espionage is a realm in which high-tech gadgets afford relatively small advantage. In fact, excellent human capabilities can trump high tech, turning a militarily fourth-rate nation like Iran into an espionage superpower, at least in certain areas.

We only need to look at the WMD fiasco in Iraq, where the United States tried to make up for its lack of human intelligence resources by relying on satellites and intercepts. We all know how well that worked.

The techniques of human intelligence (“tradecraft,” in the spy vernacular) are known to all; an organization with patience and focus and cunning (the Iranian intelligence service, for instance) can achieve stunning results with good tradecraft and imaginative operations. U.S. technological advantages fade, and it becomes spy versus spy.

Unlike a purely military confrontation, this is a struggle the U.S. can definitely lose if it’s not careful. And what is true for Iranian intelligence is just as true for our less conventional enemies, the most obvious being Al Qaeda. Our enemies don’t have elections to worry about or open societies to restrict them, and they are completely at home operating clandestinely. The U.S. intelligence community has many advantages over the Irans and Al Qaedas of the world, and we would be foolish to trade our capabilities for theirs, even if we could. Nonetheless, the human game of espionage is played on a field that is far more level than Americans commonly suppose.

CIA Director George Tenet recently said it would take five years to get U.S. human intelligence capabilities up to fighting form. Congress needs to give Tenet the resources and support he needs, and then the president must demand results.