Tipping off the enemy

GABRIEL SCHOENFELD is senior editor of Commentary magazine.

SO FAR, four Iranian Americans have been detained by the Iranian government and charged with espionage. The most well-known case is that of Haleh Esfandiari of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who was detained and later arrested after traveling to Tehran to see her 93-year-old mother late last year. The most recent case is that of Ali Shakeri, a “peace activist” from Irvine, who was arrested in mid-May.

It’s not exactly clear why the Iranians have detained these American citizens, nor what they plan to do with them. But consider this: On Jan. 15, 2002, nearly five years before the detentions began, the Los Angeles Times ran a story under the headline “CIA Looks to Los Angeles for Would-Be Iranian Spies,” disclosing on its front page that the CIA was recruiting Iranian Americans in Southern California, home to the largest concentration of Iranian emigres in the United States. According to the paper, the agency was “offering cash for useful information” to Iranian Americans who “have business connections [in Iran] or relatives in [a] position to provide valuable information from inside the largely impenetrable republic.”

The article explained just how the agency hoped to use emigres to get at their relatives in Iran. “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,” was how one former CIA officer explained it. The article noted that the “risks for informants are considerable” and that “spies caught by the [Islamic] Republic face severe punishment, including execution.”

Is it possible that there is a connection between the leak in 2002 about the highly classified U.S. intelligence program -- which the paper chose to publish despite the fact that it knew it was creating trouble for U.S. intelligence -- and the recent arrests of Esfandiari and the others?

Of course, we’re unlikely ever to know for sure what that connection is, and I don’t mean to suggest that the recent arrests are a direct response to a five-year-old story. But I don’t think it is farfetched to suspect that the leak -- and the resulting suspicion of emigres coming home to visit their relatives -- may have played a part in the decision to detain the four Iranian Americans.

To begin with, Iran has a significant diplomatic and intelligence presence in the United States. The same piece in The Times that revealed the CIA program to recruit Iranian emigres also reported that Iranian intelligence was active in Los Angeles, and that it, like the CIA, was paying careful attention to the emigre community. The Times story was thus nearly certain to have been seen by Iranian officials and transmitted to the Iranian foreign policy and intelligence establishment in Tehran.

Bear in mind that the Iranian regime has long had a peculiar relationship with the CIA. After the shah’s fall in 1979, the Islamic revolutionaries believed they saw the hidden hand of the CIA everywhere and held it responsible for every conceivable ill that befell Iran, from failed crops to the decade-long Iraq-Iran war. Never mind that the CIA presence inside the country, and its understanding of events -- let alone its ability to manipulate them -- has been close to nonexistent for the last 2 1/2 decades.

But the 2002 leak fed an existing fear. Iranian intelligence undoubtedly suspected that the CIA was doing the kind of thing reported on by The Times. But suspicion is one thing; certainty and concrete details are another. A story offering details of how Iranian emigres were being recruited by the CIA to gather sensitive intelligence could not but have the effect of placing a class of visitors -- a class already regarded with great wariness -- under the most intense scrutiny. And Iran, needless to say, is not a country with a Bill of Rights, under which one is presumed innocent until proved guilty.

In light of this, one has to ask two questions. Was the public interest served by the publication of such a sensitive story in The Times? And whatever that interest was conceived to be, was it weighed against the damage that would be done, including to the CIA program and to the many Iranian Americans who travel regularly to their former homeland?

At the time, the CIA would not comment on the article, other than to note that the revelation was “not helpful to U.S. national security.” That was said with some justice; Iran, after all, is both an intensely hostile country and an aspiring nuclear power.

The role and the responsibilities of the media in wartime have become a matter of fierce controversy because of other high-profile leaks. The disclosure of the National Security Agency’s terrorist surveillance program in December 2005 and the Treasury’s terrorist finance tracking program in June 2006 by the New York Times (along with the Wall Street Journal and the L.A. Times) compromised critical counter-terrorism programs.

The Iranian emigre leak raises not a legal question but a moral one: By publishing a story that would jeopardize an ongoing intelligence operation and endanger a group of Americans, were the editors of the Los Angeles Times subordinating their civic obligations to their journalistic ambitions? Are four Americans now paying the price?