WASHINGTON — The CIA launched a secret program in 2005 designed to degrade Iran's nuclear weapons program by persuading key officials to defect, an effort that has prompted a "handful" of significant departures, current and former U.S. intelligence officials familiar with the operation say.
The previously undisclosed program, which CIA officials dubbed "the Brain Drain," is part of a major intelligence push against Iran ordered by the White House two years ago.
Intelligence gathered as part of that campaign provided much of the basis for a U.S. report released last week that concluded the Islamic Republic had halted its nuclear weapons work in 2003. Officials declined to say how much of that intelligence could be attributed to the CIA program to recruit defectors.
Although the CIA effort on defections has been aimed in part at gaining information about Tehran's nuclear capabilities, its goal has been to undermine Iran's emerging capabilities by plucking key scientists, military officers and other personnel from its nuclear roster.
Encouraging scientists and military officers to defect has been a hallmark of CIA efforts against an array of targets since the height of the Cold War. But officials said those programs did not generally seek to degrade the target's capabilities, suggesting that U.S. officials believe Iran's nuclear know-how is still thin enough that it can be depleted.
The program has had limited success. Officials said that fewer than six well-placed Iranians have defected, and that none has been in a position to provide comprehensive information on Tehran's nuclear program.
The CIA effort reflects the urgency with which the U.S. government has sought to slow down Iran's nuclear advances, as well as the importance Washington attaches to finding human sources who can help fill intelligence gaps left by high-tech collection methods such as satellites and electronic eavesdropping equipment. The program was described by officials on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the effort.
The White House ordered the stepped-up effort in hopes of gathering stronger evidence that Tehran was making progress toward building a nuclear bomb. The Bush administration "wanted better information" on Iran's nuclear programs, said a U.S. official briefed on the expanded collection efforts.
"I can't imagine that they would have ever guessed that the information they got would show that the program was shut down," the official said.
That was the central finding of the comprehensive intelligence report released last week. The National Intelligence Estimate on Iran contradicted previous intelligence assessments and undercut assertions by the Bush administration.
The new report, which represents the consensus view of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, also concluded that Tehran "at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons" and continuing to pursue civilian nuclear energy technologies that could help it make a bomb.
A CIA spokesman declined to comment on the effort to cultivate defectors, saying "the agency does not comment on these kinds of allegations as a matter of course."
White House reversal
The administration's decision to step up intelligence collection on Iran in 2005 was a reversal from a position the White House took after President Bush was first elected. Former CIA officials said that the agency had built up a large Iran Task Force, made up of nearly 100 officers and analysts at headquarters, by the end of the Clinton administration. But that office shrank to fewer than a dozen officers early in the Bush administration, when the White House ordered resources shifted to other targets.
"When Bush came in, they were totally disinterested in Iran," said a former CIA official who held a senior position at the time. "It went from being a main focus to everything being switched to Iraq."
Asked about decisions to reduce the size of the Iran Task Force, CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano said: "Iran has been an issue of priority to the United States for a long time. You shouldn't assume that a single unit of any size reflects the complete level of effort. That would be a mistake."
Even as the task force shrank, officials said, other CIA units, including its counter-proliferation division, continued to track Iran's procurement networks and other targets.
Some of that reduced task force capacity has been restored, former CIA officials said. Two years ago, the agency created an Iran division within its overseas spying operations, applying to a single country resources and emphasis usually reserved for multinational regions.
The stepped-up effort went beyond the CIA, and has also involved the National Security Agency, which eavesdrops on other countries' communications, and the National Reconnaissance Office, which operates spy satellites.