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The Nation

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.


Goss said he doesn't favor such a proposal but expects it to get a more receptive hearing than would have been thinkable a year ago. After the attacks of Sept. 11, Goss said, the national mood "changed just like that."

Success Recruiting Foreign Students

The agency's domestic collection efforts have had mixed results. "I can't remember any great home runs I could ever connect to domestic collection," said John Gannon, a 24-year employee of the CIA who was chairman of the National Intelligence Council before his retirement in June.

But the agency has had considerable success, he said, recruiting foreign students and other visitors to America, who return to their home countries and provide valuable information for the United States. "The CIA has done quite well on recruitment," said Gannon, now vice chairman of Intellibridge, a Washington-based corporate intelligence firm.

The agency's domestic interests are predictable, several sources said. On the West Coast, CIA stations are largely focused on collecting intelligence on China and other Pacific Rim countries. In Detroit, the focus is the substantial population of Middle Easterners. New York is an international smorgasbord, with hundreds of diplomats at the United Nations, a prominent Russian population and local communities representing more than 170 other countries and cultures.

Southern California is similarly diverse, but former CIA officers said the agency's Los Angeles station has made a particular effort to tap Southern California's Iranian population. At least one of the CIA's officers in Los Angeles is a fluent Farsi speaker, a former agency officer said.

Iran has been an active front--and source of some embarrassment--for the CIA for decades. The agency was secretly behind a coup in 1953 that installed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and was criticized for failing to anticipate the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The U.S. State Department ranks Iran as the most active state sponsor of terrorism. Tehran backs Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations, and has been linked to the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. servicemen. Last week, Israeli authorities intercepted what they said was a weapon shipment from Iran to Palestinian militants. And many experts believe Iran could be the next nation to develop nuclear weapon capability.

There have been recent signs of thawing in the U.S.-Iran relationship, and White House officials have said Tehran has been cooperative in the war in Afghanistan. But last week, reacting to reports that Arabs and Al Qaeda fighters have fled into Iran, President Bush warned Tehran against harboring terrorists and war criminals.

Intelligence on Iran is extremely difficult to obtain because it is a closed Islamic society with which the United States has not had diplomatic relations for more than two decades. Former CIA officials said Iran is what's known in the agency as a "denied area," meaning the agency has no presence inside the country.

As a result, the United States depends heavily on satellite surveillance and the interception of radio transmissions and other signals. For human intelligence, the CIA is largely forced to focus on Iranian populations outside the country, and none is bigger than that of Los Angeles.

Though Southern California's Persian population is largely composed of families of expatriates who fled Iran when the shah was overthrown, many still travel to the country and have family or business ties there.

Former CIA officers said the agency is combing this community for "access agents," those who may not have direct knowledge of events in Iran but can get information through connections.

"What you really want is these people to get to family members still in Iran," said a former officer familiar with the Los Angeles effort. "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."

CIA officers have to disclose their identities when approaching U.S. citizens or permanent residents for information. But foreign travelers and those on temporary visas can be approached undercover.

"You can say, 'I run a consulting firm in Los Angeles that wants to bring energy companies into Iran when it opens up,' " a former officer said. Eventually, he added, "you might get to the point where you think you can break cover," meaning reveal CIA affiliation and simply ask the contact to spy.

A new informant might be put on the CIA payroll at $5,000 a month, the officer said. "If the spy were really good, the sky's the limit."

It is not clear to what extent the CIA's operation in Los Angeles has succeeded. Former CIA officials familiar with the operation said they had left the agency or were reassigned to other areas before the program was fully established. The CIA's station chief in Los Angeles did not return calls seeking comment.

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