Thursday, May 04, 2006


Jane Bond, the novelette

We've all followed the Plame case as a political story. But a nice synopsis bringing out the human side of the Bush betrayal was produced by Evelyn Pringle. Consider what is contained in these spare lines: A question seldom asked is how did Valerie take the news when she learned of Novak's column. "She felt like she had been hit in the stomach," her husband Joe Wilson said on the October 30, 2005, 60 Minutes program. "It took her breath away," he said. "She recovered quickly because," Wilson explained, "you don't do what she did for a living without understanding stress." "And she became very matter of fact right afterwards," he said, "started making lists of what she had to do to ensure that her assets, her projects, her programs and her operations were protected." This is what came to me when I read that: June 14, 2002. Valerie Plame got off the Dubai-Teheran flight at the Imam-Khomeini airport, an airfield rumored to be unsafe because of ancient irrigation channels under the runways, she bleary from the day and a half trip from New York. She reminded herself to stay especially sharp during the leisurely trip through Customs. Being a flashily attractive blonde might have been an asset back home, but in dour Iran it drew attention, and attention was dangerous. Every detail about her fictional work had to be perfectly tailored and carefully thought through not for one audience, but for three. She would need to have access to junior officials and scientists in the Iranian energy industry for what would seem like entirely incidental reasons, while not drawing the attention of FBI, DEA or Customs officials in the United States in dealing with the close scrutiny and tangle of export limitations attached to any Iranian transaction. As a NOC, only three people in government knew her mission, and attention from any other government official could create a seam, an irregularity, a thread by which cover could unravel. Working inside Iran was particularly difficult for a woman because of the social restrictions. Meeting at a cocktail party was fine for the CIA in Russia-- even in Pakistan, though care had to be taken to keep the alcohol out of sight of the Taliban sympathizers in the government-- but completely impossible in Iran, where hypocrisy was less developed. And yet the heightened scrutiny of social contacts with men ironically meant that she could somewhat more freely in meeting with women. Although the number of women scientists and functionaries was few, and the number willing to betray the confidences of their country even fewer, they did provide an angle that could be exploited. But there was also the matter of Plame's client. The cover story might be that she was being dispatched to discuss the delivery of a key piece of drilling equipment or perhaps a piece of dual use scientific equipment. The Iranians would have made an approach to a German or Dutch company-- probably a CIA Ex-Im front company with a deliberatelyshady reputation connecting it to, say, Henk Slebos-- which would then have had to hire Brewster-Jennings to negotiate. That cover had to be as tight as Brewster-Jennings. There had to be enough bait of high enough quality so that the Iranians would be eager to see Plame. And there had to be some sort of hangup in the sale-- nothing so technical as to make Plame seem as if she really understood the nature of nuclear processing, but also not something so mundane that it could be done by anyone else. And it had to happen regularly. Then there was the matter of her other skills. Her Persian had to be very good, much better than she let on. But because the discontented willing to be recruited were among the ethnic minorities, she also needed to understand some Kurmanji, Luri, Natanzi, Nayini, and Parsi-Dari... at least enough to immediately flag a speaker's viewpoint from hearing a few words. She had to understand the subtleties of Iranian politics better than any Iranian save the political class, able to understand the instinctive pro-Americanism of a nation that had stood down the USSR and yet sense the loyalties of someone she was meeting for the first time according to their geographic origin, education, political class, and religious feeling. Finally, she understood that, in intelligence work, sensitive and even classified information is like any other commodity to be traded. One has to buy cheap and sell dear. In a country like Iran, where the educated classes are constantly hectored, limited, and monitored by the mullahs, this made her job easy. A catalog from an embargoed supplier, delivered as a small personal favor, would be highly esteemed. In such situations, it's too easy to let one's human emotions betray one. Compassion may lead one to reveal too much. Arrogance may make an enemy who seeks revenge by reporting to the authorities. But most dangerous of all is blurring the line between Valerie Plame and Agent Plame-Wilson, two people inside one head, dancing ever so cautiously to avoid stumbling over one another, yet somehow appearing casual and spontaneous. As she stood in line at Customs, she reviewed her plans for the rest of the day. One of the great things about working for the Agency in this capacity was that she got first class hotels, as would be expected for a junior executive of an American firm. The Laleh, overdone in the Persian style, but close to the business district. So, the very first thing would be a shower, a drink-- forbidden but available anyway--and a short rest to get her wits in order. But that very evening, she would be meeting at the hotel under the watchful but bored eyes of Iranian security with the wife of the man who served as an in-country liason. He, of course, did not know the nature of Plame's business, nor did his wife. He had been approached shortly before the Iranian Revolution with a simple proposition. Americans traveling to Iran would need someone who knew the local customs. Someone who could arrange things for them. Someone who could help them stay out of trouble with the mercurial regime. In her reports, he was was Ali (his real name Aref) and her name was Fardokht (real name Azarchehr). Aref the Wise and Azarchehr the fiery one. Perfectly fitting. He was a minor government official in Customs, brilliant at keeping his job without getting promoted, brilliant at serving as the CIA's local liason without knowing anything about what services he was actually providing. She was the fire, the woman whose Kurdish grandfather dreamed of a free Kurdistan, a grandfather whose dreams she had imbibed as a child, a child who had seen her grandfather taken, tortured, and ultimately executed by the Shah's SAVAK... and then seen his dream betrayed by Henry Kissinger, Saddam Hussein, the Turks of course--and Khomeini. But now the Americans were protecting the Kurds in the north from Saddam Hussein. Azarchehr knew her grandfather would be unable to contain his enthusiasm. The Iranian government was happy to have Aref be the host to the American, since every time she visited, he would report all the details of Plame's conversations. Details that Plame had carefully constructed precisely for the purpose of conversation. Details that would keep the Iranian government interested in seeing her continue to come. Details that had no value except in a country where information is tightly restricted. Aref actually didn't usually meet with Plame. Azarchehr was the one who came to the Laleh Hotel for coffee. Azarchehr, who had met Plame "totally by accident" when she had stopped by the airport to show her husband a Dara doll that a cousin had dropped by as a gift for their youngest grandchild. Dara was developed to counter Barbie, viewed as "as dangerous as a missile" by the government. Plame had remarked approvingly, since just "by chance" she was a collector of dolls from around the world. The women had hit it off instantaneously. And thus there were occasions for endless conversations over lunch that would send the Iranian minders into tears of boredom-- and carelessness-- not to mention shopping trips to meet with other contacts and the opportunity to pass technical information out or requests/directives in to agents concealed inside of dolls. Azarchehr and Plame never discussed intelligence issues. Azarchehr was the gatekeeper, the cutout, the person who This was easy to accomplish because the pace of business in Teheran was so much slower than in New York. Appointments had to be arranged and re-scheduled after long waits and many cups of tea. Officials had to be consulted before the smallest decisions could be made. Many of her best contacts happened in the waiting rooms of government agencies, as a technician was sent out to do hospitality for "the American." Technicians because Plame visited scientific and engineering agencies. The hangups that bedeviled Iran's trade with the west always seemed to involve the precise technical specifications and how to get around the export restrictions. Is atropine a vital medicine or an agent for nerve gas? Is a high speed motor useful for making machine tools, or could it be adapted to make centrifuges? One of her best contacts was Hamraz, a technician so junior that none of the men deigned to recognize her presence. And for this reason, Hamraz heard many things that she wouldn't have in an organization that respected women. She wasn't on Plame's payroll. But she quietly resented her treatment, and when "the American" visited, she was happy to entertain her. Through seemingly innocuous details provided by her, and people like her, Plame quietly compiled a picture of Iran's nuclear industry. The town of Estefan was growing so rapidly, Hamraz said. Why, her cousin-- who did construction-- had just built a new government apartment complex to house the people moving there. Very nice apartments, like a self-contained village, with its own shops and cable connections in every room. Six floors tall, ten apartments on a floor. While gleaning helped confirm or flesh out many details, Plame could not spend enough time at it to do the job that needed to be done. The key information came from deep agents, people like Azarchehr who had grievances with th government. Because of the tight control of information, they couldn't tell her much, and never directly. It all came in the form of tightly-focused tips. Approval to deal with a Russian electronics firm had been granted. The promotion of a scientist, whose phone could be listened to by the NSA and the intercepts translated on priority. Grind, grind, grind, extracting precious bits of information from mountains of refuse. But it had to be done. When Iran got the bomb, the existing order in the Middle East would be destabilized. It was going to happen. The US had set the process in motion under the Shah, providing a reactor and making sure that Iran got all the basic knowhow. In those days, Iran was our front line against the USSR, a major oil producer that wasn't Arab, an immensely sophisticated people that had survived as a distinct cultural entity longer than all but a few nations. So, it was going to happen. The American government needed to delay it as long as possible. But when it happened, it had to know when, to arrange the subtle re-orderings of soft power that would keep the new nuclear power in check long enough that it could learn the wisdom of Kali. ______________________ Here's re-write: A question seldom asked is how did Valerie take the news when she learned of Novak's column. "She felt like she had been hit in the stomach," her husband Joe Wilson said on the October 30, 2005, 60 Minutes program. "It took her breath away," he said. "She recovered quickly because," Wilson explained, "you don't do what she did for a living without understanding stress." "Aref and Azarchehr had to be gotten out of Iran immediately on the Kurdish Underground Railroad," she thought. "Hamraz could be given up, to confuse the Iranian government. She didn't know anything, but it would take them time to figure that out. Majid was dead; no help for it. Who would he compromise? Would they suspect Farrokh? Or might he slip by?" Then her mind drifted to her fellow NOC, Jem. A Brewster employee, he was in China. He would need to be notified covertly, immediately, so he could roll up his network ahead of the Chinese government. And her Indonesians. Pakistanis. North Koreans. "The next eighteen hours were critical," she thought to herself. "We can save most of them, keep some assets in place." "That son of a b..." She refused to let herself finish the thought. Anything that took away from the task at hand could cost a life. "Hon," she said as she dialed Langley, "can your mother come down and take care of the kids for the next few days?"
Wow, Charles. That lays it out rather nicely -- and heartbreakingly.

This woman and her agents were betrayed by political clowns unworthy of licking their boots.
That's a great bit of novelization. Who says that there is no place for historical fiction. If nothing else, it can help people understand the way history happens.
PW, Kaleberg, I am deeply grateful for your responses.

After I spent more time than I care to think about researching the piece and thinking through exactly how Plame must have gone about her job, and a day went by with no comments, I felt pretty discouraged. So your comments make me think this wasn't entirely in vain.

We all know in an abstract sense that "sources and methods" were revealed by Novak. We all know in the abstract that that's a bad thing. But in working through how Plame must have operated, I realized the full magnitude of the damage.

Plame had to have been exploiting the tendency of developing countries to hold women in little regard and to maintain a strict division between men's activities and women's-- even in this country, spying is thought of as a male pursuit.

Exploiting these conceptual blinders are how you win at the game of intelligence. The Germans thought their Enigma code was unbreakable and put blinders on themselves-- and we exploited that. The Hanssen spy case-- he was in the church of Louis Freeh's brother, meaning Freeh assumed Hanssen was a known entity. In case after case, successful espionage depends on using the weaknesses of the opponent to hide in plain sight.

Once their intelligence agencies recognize that ignoring female visitors is a dangerous vulnerability, they will patch it. It is going to be a h--l of a lot harder to get another agent in. I don't think the CIA as it is today can do it.

Heck, considering the bollocks they've made. I wouldn't be surprised if an Iranian agent isn't a station chief somewhere.
Day-yum, this is a thought-provoking piece. Thank you for taking on the big task of putting it together, and to PW for linking to it over at Eschaton; I always appreciate PW's links, btw/fwiw.
Steve-MD/DC (Eschaton lurker)

My cup runneth over. Thanks, Steve.
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