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CIA Looks to Los Angeles for Would-Be Iranian Spies

Informants: The city has the largest population of Persians outside Iran. Many have contacts in their homeland.

January 15, 2002|GREG MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Dissatisfied with its intelligence gathering on Iran, the CIA disbanded a station in Germany in the mid-1990s that had been a key spying portal into the Islamic republic.

Instead, it reassigned several of its officers to a post much farther from Tehran but potentially richer in contacts: Los Angeles.

In Germany, the agency "had eight or 10 people basically waiting for the phone to ring," said a former CIA officer familiar with the redeployment. "We had to pursue the Iranian target better and acknowledge the fact that Los Angeles" has the largest Iranian population of any city outside Iran.

Indeed, Southern California is home to hundreds of thousands of people of Iranian descent, many of whom continue to travel to Iran, have business connections there or relatives in position to provide valuable information from inside the largely impenetrable republic.

Former CIA officers said the agency has been actively trying to recruit informants in Los Angeles, offering cash for useful information and even launching some covert operations, including a planned satellite broadcast into Tehran secretly funded by the CIA.

Since Sept. 11, the CIA has attracted attention for the unusually high-profile role it is playing in Afghanistan, as well as for its efforts to unravel terrorist cells around the globe.

But the CIA's previously undisclosed effort to tap into the Iranian community in Los Angeles shows that part of the agency's war on terrorism will be conducted at home. Iran is considered the most active state sponsor of terrorism.

The Los Angeles program provides a rare glimpse into the CIA's "domestic collections" activities, which are more extensive than generally understood and are poised to expand with new funding and powers from Congress.

The CIA would not discuss the activities of its National Resources Division on grounds that disclosure of such a program "is not helpful to U.S. national security." But former intelligence officials familiar with the program say it is extensive and exists in most major urban areas.

When asked where the CIA has a significant clandestine presence in the United States, one former staff member of the National Security Council in the Clinton White House replied simply: "NFL cities."

One of the CIA's largest domestic posts was exposed last year when the agency's New York station, which had been housed in the World Trade Center complex, was destroyed by the Sept. 11 attacks. No agency employees were killed in the attack, a CIA official said.

Since the 1970s, the CIA's domestic role has been strictly governed by laws designed to prevent the notorious abuses uncovered when the agency was caught spying on campus radicals and other citizens in violation of its charter as a collector of foreign intelligence.

The CIA is not allowed to monitor U.S. citizens or permanent residents in this country, for example. Other U.S. intelligence agencies may conduct electronic surveillance domestically only with the permission of a special foreign intelligence court, and only when there is probable cause that the target is an agent of a foreign power. Most domestic surveillance functions are the domain of the FBI.

But the CIA still has considerable latitude to collect intelligence from Americans willing to provide it, recruit foreign nationals within the United States and support covert operations.

Anti-terrorism legislation recently passed by Congress boosts the CIA's domestic intelligence-gathering capabilities. The legislation, dubbed the Patriot Act by Congress, gives the CIA director authority to set "priorities" for the FBI's domestic surveillance efforts.

A senior CIA official said that provision codifies existing practice and gives no expanded authority. But the law also eliminates restrictions that prevented the FBI from sharing the "take" from its wiretaps and other surveillance with the CIA.

In effect, experts say, the CIA will have a greater ability to have the FBI do its domestic intelligence bidding, a development that alarms some critics.

"When it was created in 1947, the CIA was specifically denied any domestic police or subpoena powers, and Congress was obviously very adamant in saying it was creating a foreign intelligence agency," said James X. Dempsey, deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington-based civil liberties group. "That line was in many respects obliterated through the Patriot Act."

But at a time when security has become the priority of a newly nervous nation, many believe that line could--and perhaps should--be eroded further. Many in Washington consider the Sept. 11 attacks a major intelligence failure.

Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said he expects to see at least some debate in the coming year on whether the United States should have a domestic intelligence service, as many other developed nations already do.

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