The question of whether or not the Iranian nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri defected to the US is interesting but not unique.
(This article first appeared in The Guardian on 15 July 2010)
Shahram Amiri the Iranian nuclear scientist “defector” has been welcomed back to Tehran from the US like a returning hero. He claims he had been abducted by the CIA while on a pilgrimage to Medina in Saudi Arabia. Not so, say the Americans: he had defected to the US in return for a $5m bounty and had subsequently changed his mind.
His case is an interesting one. But not unique. It’s a tale of “did he defect?” or “didn’t he?” Others in the past have changed their minds. Some, like Amiri, claimed that they were abducted, while others found that the way they were treated or rewarded was less than they expected and returned to the country they had “betrayed”.
For while defectors can be feted and honoured by the host country, they are at the same time loathed and despised as traitors and turncoats by their fellow countrymen.
During the cold war years – and immediately afterwards – there was a steady flow of people fleeing their home country to what, they hoped, would be a better life in the country of their choice. Many fled from the old Soviet Union or Warsaw Pact countries to the west – mainly the US or UK. Not all were spies or bearing military secrets. High-profile ballet dancers, chess and tennis players were among those who defected.
But the real value to the west was those who had access to real information: intelligence or military and technical secrets of our main adversaries. Particularly prized were those pilots who stole their aircraft and flew them to the west.
In 1953, when little was known of the MiG-15, the mainstay fighter of the Soviet bloc, three pilots absconded with aircraft. Two Polish air force pilots flew their MiGs to Denmark and later that year another MiG-15 was flown by a North Korean pilot, No Kum Sok, to an American base in South Korea.
A major prize for the west was obtained in 1976 when a Soviet pilot, Viktor Belenko defected with the latest MiG-25 “Foxbat” jet fighter to Hakodate, in Japan. The aircraft revealed many secrets to US military specialists. And even as recently as 1989 the west welcomed Alexander Zuyev who defected with his MiG-29 “Fulcrum” to Trabzon, Turkey.
In each case, the pilots were granted asylum. Then after being interrogated and debriefed for many months after their defection, they were paid bounties and found employment with the military complex. Usually as consultants and advisers.
Possibly the most valuable defector to come across to the west in the cold war years was the former KGB colonel, Oleg Gordievsky, one-time deputy rezident at the Soviet embassy in London. After many years working as an agent for Britain’s secret intelligence service, MI6, he defected in 1985 (in an extraordinary exfiltration organised by Sir John Scarlett, former chief of MI6). In years of debriefing he was able to provide much important intelligence about the order-of-battle of the KGB and the Soviet plans and concerns over a possible surprise nuclear attack by the United States. President Ronald Reagan subsequently said this was one of the most significant influences on his decisions to seek détente with President Mikhail Gorbachev – a move that some believe helped prevent a nuclear holocaust.
The flow, however, was not just one way. MI5 officer Guy Burgess and senior diplomat Donald McLean’s infamous defection to Moscow was followed in 1963 by the treacherous Kim Philby, a very senior MI6 officer responsible for liaison with CIA. They, and their fellow spies Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross (neither of whom defected) were of immense value to the Russians. In 1966 fellow, former MI6 officer George Blake escaped from prison and defected to the USSR.
They were joined in Russia by the CIA defector, Edward Lee Howard; US navy intelligence analyst Glenn Michael Souther; William Martin and Bernon Mitchell, two National Security Agency (NSA) cryptologists and even the infamous former US marine, Lee Harvey Oswald, who returned to the United States and became the assassin of President John F Kennedy.
There are those defectors who undoubtedly have proved their worth – and those who were planted bait.
Prior to Gordievsky’s defection one of the most valuable to the west was Igor Gouzenko, a cipher clerk at the Soviet embassy in Ottawa. Learning that he was to be sent home to the Soviet Union and dissatisfied with the quality of life and the politics of his homeland, he defected in 1945 with top-secret Soviet codes and deciphering keys.
The KGB colonel, Vladimer Petrov, and his wife (an MVD officer) defected to Australia in 1954, fearing that if he returned to the Soviet Union he would have been killed in one of the current “purges”. He was subsequently granted asylum after providing the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) with detailed information about KGB operations, identifying a number of their officers and agents that were being run by KGB case officers.
Despite these successes, in 1985, Vitaly Yurchenko, a top-echelon official of the KGB, defected to the west and was debriefed by the CIA. Three months later he “redefected” and returned to Moscow. At a press conference, Yurchenko said he had been kidnapped and drugged by the Americans. It is believed that his original “defection” was part of a KGB plan to deflect attention away from the CIA officer Aldrich Ames, at that time one of the USSR’s most important agents.
What triggered these defections? Most defectors seem persuaded by one or more of the classic motivators that cause people to spy. Known by the mnemonic “mice”.
For many, M for “money” is the key. In the case of someone like Gordievsky it is I for “ideology” that motivated him. C for “compromise” or “coercion” was the case of the Petrovs and E for “ego” has influenced others.
What was it for Amiri? Depending on whom you believe it was either money, coercion or he was planted bait. All are plausible and perfectly possible in the smoke and mirrors of espionage.