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Iranian Scientist’s Homecoming Ends Long, Mysterious Saga

July 15, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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With nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri back in Iran, Jim Lehrer talks to Greg Miller of the Washington Post and former CIA case officer Arthur Keller for more insight into what this development means for the two countries.
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JIM LEHRER: For more on this case, here’s Greg Miller, national security correspondent for The Washington Post, and Arthur Keller, a former case officer in the CIA. Part of his work focused on Iran’s missile and nuclear programs.

First, Greg Miller, is it hard to believe that the CIA would pay $5 million to a guy who was just a, as he called it — what did he call himself — a simple researcher, with no classified information?

GREG MILLER, national security correspondent, The Washington Post: Well, I’m sure the CIA would say they wouldn’t pay $5 million to somebody who fits that description.

But it’s not hard to believe that the agency would pay large sums of money to defectors, especially from a nation like Iran, where the agency is desperate for better intelligence on what is happening inside that country and what it’s doing with its nuclear program.

JIM LEHRER: So, your report about the $5 million stands up as far as you’re concerned?

GREG MILLER: Oh, yes.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

ARTHUR KELLER, is it believable to you as well that the CIA would pay that kind of money for this kind of guy?

ARTHUR KELLER, retired CIA agent: It is. Iranian nuclear physicists do not grow on trees. And to get someone with really good access, sometimes you have to wave a really big potential payday for him.

But that kind of money, while it seems like a lot, it gives you information that you couldn’t get through billions of dollars of technical coverage. So, in the end, someone with really good insight is more than worth that. I have no trouble believing that.

JIM LEHRER: Do you — is there any way to ascertain how valuable his information was? Can you judge that by the fact he was paid $5 million, or you just — or is there any way to do it beyond that?

ARTHUR KELLER: Certainly, I would point to the fact that the national intelligence estimate of 2007 said that Iran had appeared to halt their nuclear program. And that changed in late 2009.

So, that suggests, at least to me, that possibly he provided some information on that topic.

JIM LEHRER: Greg, is there anything really solid known about how this guy got here, whether he was abducted, as the Iranians claim and he now claims, or whether he was a volunteer defector?

GREG MILLER: Well, you are right. You have utterly conflicting claims about this. But there are some new details emerging here in the United States.

I mean, it looks now like he had a relationship with the CIA long before he came to the United States. And, in fact, the agency encouraged him to come out in part over concerns that he may have been identified inside Iran. In other words, they became worried that he had been exposed and burned and that he needed to come out for his own safety. And that’s sort of the backdrop to his disappearance from Saudi Arabia in June 2009.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

Do you agree, Arthur Keller, with Bob Baer’s point that it’s not uncommon for defectors to come aboard, tell what they have got to say, get bored, and want to go home?

ARTHUR KELLER: Yes.

The care and feeding of a defector is kind of a major headache. Obviously, they provide very valuable information, but, thereafter, they have really cut themselves off from their homeland. And remorse is very common in that situation.

So, I don’t find myself too surprised that he returned, although, in this particular case, I wonder if he returned under pressure on his family back in Iran.

JIM LEHRER: How do you think he — he got a hero’s welcome today. Do you think that hero’s welcome is going to last in Iran?

ARTHUR KELLER: I fear it is not. If he — if he did return under pressure, I think the Iranian regime will wait until pressure dies down, and there is a good chance that, a year or two from now, he may be disappeared.

JIM LEHRER: You mean they will kill him?

ARTHUR KELLER: I don’t think they forget.

JIM LEHRER: You think they might kill him?

ARTHUR KELLER: He might wind up with a special cell in Evin Prison of his own for quite a long time. I’m not sure if they would kill him. But I don’t think he’s going to get away with it.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

Greg, how would you read this thing? The idea that he was paid $5 million, it’s all over The Washington Post, all over the world today. How is that going to go down back in — how do you think that might go down back in Iran with the Iranian authorities who are going to have to deal with this guy?

GREG MILLER: Well, I think they will just deny it, or they will — they will spin this the way they have been portraying it all along, that he was abducted, and these are all stories that are being made up by the agency and by the United States government.

I would add to Art’s point just a moment ago that he will have some short-term value to the Iranians, probably, because he will — he may have a good deal to tell them about the agency’s practices in identifying potential defectors and bringing them to the United States, in other words, where they are taken, how they are taken there, how they are vetted, and how their information is evaluated, as well as perhaps even explaining what some of the potential gaps are in U.S. intelligence.

I mean, the questions that he — that he faced over the past year may tell him and may now be telling the Iranians a good deal about what the United States knows and doesn’t know about Iran’s program.

JIM LEHRER: Do you share Art Keller’s view that this guy may not have a long-term future there in Iran?

GREG MILLER: He may have some protection now because they have made this so high-profile, his hero’s welcome back home and his — I mean, if he is — if he is disappeared, what will that say to other scientists who may have worked alongside him or who are just in other facilities in Iran who are — have questions about this regime or about this program?

I mean, he may have some protection just because of the way he has been greeted by the government in Tehran.

JIM LEHRER: Help us understand, Art Keller, how a defector like this — we don’t — I’m sure you don’t know the — nobody knows the details on this.

But a defector, if he did come voluntarily — come involuntarily — and decides, I want to go home, I’m homesick, I want to go home, whatever, for whatever reason, is there — does the United States have any way to keep him from leaving?

ARTHUR KELLER: No. If he came here voluntarily, there’s really no legal basis. So, if they want to go, they can go. That’s the long and short of it.

They have no legal reason to keep him. He’s here at invitation, and he’s free to go.

JIM LEHRER: And there’s been some high-visibility examples of this in the past with Russian defectors, right?

ARTHUR KELLER: Yes, yes.

Vitaly Yurchenko, I believe, is the name of one who also re-defected. There is some question even to this day whether or not his original defection was legitimate or an attempt by the KGB to plant disinformation.

I’m sure this case will raise similar issues. But, at the end of the day, I think that the CIA got $5 million worth of information and is ending up not having to pay for it.

JIM LEHRER: And they…

(LAUGHTER)

JIM LEHRER: Should they see this as an embarrassment? Is this an embarrassment to the CIA, or is it just an interesting story, and it was a — it was a good buy?

ARTHUR KELLER: Well, since we got the information, I would think it’s not really an embarrassment. Absent the agency of the responsibility to have to take care of him from there after, it’s not really an embarrassment.

But, on a human level, I feel bad for Mr. Amiri, because I do think he’s probably under threat of some sort of retaliation back in Iran.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

Well, you have already said, Greg, it could go the other way just because of the high visibility?

GREG MILLER: Sure. Sure.

I mean, it could — it depends a lot on how he is perceived. If, in the Middle East, his stories, his account now of being tortured and abused and abducted, if that is believed, then that’s a huge disincentive for other potential defectors. But who knows. There may be some who may be astonished to learn that he had a chance at $5 million and walked away.

JIM LEHRER: Sure. OK.

Gentlemen, thank you very much, both of you.