America’s Throwaway Spies

How the CIA failed Iranian informants in its secret war with Tehran

The spy was minutes from leaving Iran when he was nabbed.

Gholamreza Hosseini was at Imam Khomeini Airport in Tehran in late 2010, preparing for a flight to Bangkok. There, the Iranian industrial engineer would meet his Central Intelligence Agency handlers. But before he could pay his exit tax to leave the country, the airport ATM machine rejected his card as invalid. Moments later, a security officer asked to see Hosseini’s passport before escorting him away.

Hosseini said he was brought to an empty VIP lounge and told to sit on a couch that had been turned to face a wall. Left alone for a dizzying few moments and not seeing any security cameras, Hosseini thrust his hand into his trouser pocket, fishing out a memory card full of state secrets that could now get him hanged. He shoved the card into his mouth, chewed it to pieces and swallowed.

Not long after, Ministry of Intelligence agents entered the room and the interrogation began, punctuated by beatings, Hosseini recounted. His denials and the destruction of the data were worthless; they seemed to know everything already. But how?

“These are things I never told anyone in the world,” Hosseini told Reuters. As his mind raced, Hosseini even wondered whether the CIA itself had sold him out......

Hosseini’s experience of sloppy handling and abandonment was not unique. In interviews with six Iranian former CIA informants, Reuters found that the agency was careless in other ways amid its intense drive to gather intelligence in Iran, putting in peril those risking their lives to help the United States.

One informant said the CIA instructed him to make his information drops in Turkey at a location the agency knew was under surveillance by Iran. Another man, a former government worker who traveled to Abu Dhabi to seek a U.S. visa, claims a CIA officer there tried unsuccessfully to push him into spying for the United States, leading to his arrest when he returned to Iran.

Such aggressive steps by the CIA sometimes put average Iranians in danger with little prospect of gaining critical intelligence. When these men were caught, the agency provided no assistance to the informants or their families, even years later, the six Iranians said.

James Olson, former chief of CIA counterintelligence, said he was unaware of these specific cases. But he said any unnecessary compromise of sources by the agency would represent both a professional and ethical failure.

“If we’re careless, if we’re reckless and we’ve been penetrated, then shame on us,” Olson said. “If people paid the price of trusting us enough to share information and they paid a penalty, then we have failed morally.”

The men were jailed as part of an aggressive counterintelligence purge by Iran that began in 2009, a campaign partly enabled by a series of CIA blunders, according to news reports and three former U.S. national security officials. Tehran has claimed in state media reports that its mole hunt ultimately netted dozens of CIA informants.

To tell this story, Reuters conducted dozens of hours of interviews with the six Iranians who were convicted of espionage by their government between 2009 and 2015.