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Mole hunt: Story of busting CIA's 'house of cards'

The image and logo of The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)

The recent identification and destruction by Iran’s Intelligence Ministry of an integrated network of operatives serving the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) inside the country has proven that despite the inflated image that the West, especially the Hollywood, want to project of the CIA, Iran's intelligence operatives have always had the upper hand in covert and overt confrontations with their American counterparts and inflicted humiliating defeats on them.

Perhaps, it is hard to find a person who has not heard of the Central Intelligence Agency; a person with no image of the agency in their mind; an image, created, or at least influenced by Hollywood movies; with superheroes whose extraordinary abilities can thrill the audience. Yet, what the silver screen shows of the CIA is an exaggerated image of an agency that has humiliating defeats in its track record.

Back in 2013, hundreds of CIA officers scrambled to contain a disaster of global proportions: it was a deadly blow to the agency’s internet-based covert communications system used to interact with its informants around the world. The news was buried for over five years until Yahoo News released a lengthy report in November 2018 based on conversations with 11 former US intelligence and government officials directly familiar with the matter. Multiple former intelligence officials, on condition of anonymity, said that the damage was serious — even catastrophic — and will persist for years.

But the main issue was the source of this devastating blow to the most famous intelligence agency in the world.

At that time, Iranian intelligence officials who had smelled a rat put the mole hunt top on the agenda. In an intense battle, they managed to identify and arrest a number of CIA spies inside the country.

The Americans themselves have described it as an “intelligence scandal” and their activity platform as the “house of cards.”

But what gave the Americans a bigger shock was a change in Tehran’s counterintelligence approach. Having been constantly faced with the CIA's intelligence operations, Iranian intelligence officials came to the conclusion that the best defense strategy is to go on the offense. So, Iranian counter-intelligence experts embarked on tracing CIA spies overseas.

Tehran shared with friendly countries a list of CIA spies it had identified across the world. And death was the fate of many of them. Through interaction with its intelligence allies, Iran managed to set up a global network against CIA moles across the world. The CIA was crumbling like a house of cards.

As new hawks like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo came to the White House, the CIA was commissioned once more to gather intelligence on vital centers in Iran as well as recruit new intelligence operative inside the country. After the 2013 intelligence scandal, the recruitment process began slowly and with utmost care. And it continued for five years until 2018.

The CIA agents began their mission under the cover of fake companies and through direct contacts with Iranian citizens.

The bait was the US visa, money, ideal life abroad and the like. 

Some, for a few dollars more, decided to give more information to the enemy; a decision that cost them their lives.

The new battle was even more difficult to fight than the previous ones. In order to avoid another embarrassing defeat, the CIA provided the moles with high-level training programs, among them the methods to collect intelligence, to access to top-secret documents and to act under interrogation.

For what John Bolton and his ilk called “a regime change in Tehran,” Washington needed reliable information on Iran’s defense and nuclear programs as well as its economy and infrastructure. Likewise, in order to provoke public outrage, the White House imposed strict sanctions on Iran; but like all other types of war, sanctions require intelligence on way the country works; on its lifelines.

That said, a cursory look at the cases of the arrested spies shows the range of their activities is much wider than one can expect.

The CIA’s new network in Iran was equipped with highly secure communication platforms. The spies would receive espionage equipment through a method known as “Drop and Pick-up.”

The bitter experience the CIA had in 2013 made the agency develop an emergency exit line for its operatives. The CIA had already lost more than enough moles.

While American warships were heading toward the Persian Gulf and political observers began to sound the alarm of a military war between the United States and Iran, months before an undeclared war was going on; a war, on the one side, the enemy was after invaluable information on the country’s vital sectors; and on the other side, the Iranian intelligence community had devoted itself on defending it.

In the end, Iran’s counterintelligence measures made the CIA’s all-out war hit rock bottom. Among the measures were monitoring CIA officers abroad and hiring infiltrators inside the CIA itself.

Prior to and amid the US-Iran escalation, when the Americans needed intelligence on Iran more than ever, the Iranian intelligence community hammered another nail into the coffin of the CIA. The offensive counterintelligence strategy had worked.

The CIA has been described as the sharp eyes of the US government, without which the White House cannot take the right path in the international arena. Perhaps, US President Donald Trump’s wrong and sometimes bizarre decisions on Iran stem from his lack of access to reliable intelligence.

Those who betrayed their country will soon be brought to trial. And justice will be served.

Hollywood has created a legendary image of the CIA on the silver screen. But on the ground, endless schemes on behalf of the US have turned Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence into a great power in the realm of counterintelligence; a power manifested itself in the country’s sustainable peace and security.      

Commenting on the most recent operation, Iran’s Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi said in an exclusive interview with Press TV that the country’s agencies had successfully dismantled CIA spy networks inside the country and beyond borders in recent years.

“Iran’s Intelligence Ministry, in different times, in different arenas and in different platforms has delivered decisive blows to the US intelligence service; the heaviest blows were delivered by Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence in 2013 to the US foreign intelligence service beyond Iran’s borders on its cyber platform,” he said.

The comments come as Iran’s top security official announced the security operation on Sunday. On Monday, however, IRNA cited the Ministry’s director-general for counterintelligence as recounting the operation in detail.

The operation saw Iranian intelligence experts infiltrating the channels used by the CIA across the Internet for safe communication with its spies, the official noted, adding that the agency would use the cover of apparently-irrelevant websites in order to enable the communication.

The intelligence command enabled the Ministry to identify all the websites and the agents linked to them, according to the official.

The agents, each of whom were assigned a specifically-designated website and communication channel, would act against the interests of the countries, where they were operating in, including the Islamic Republic, the official noted, and referred to the exposed agents as “professional and special sources” for the CIA.

Once harvesting the information, Iran entrusted it with the countries with which it shares intelligence, according to the official, who said this interaction led to entrapment of more operatives elsewhere in the world.

Alavi went on to say that the ministry had centered the offensive counterintelligence phase to foil the US plots and conspiracies against the country.

“It is common among intelligence services to act defensively when it comes to counterintelligence. It means if a person -- whether citizen or not -- was recruited by intelligence services, they would monitor them, arrest them and counter them. This is common among intelligence services.”

“But Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence has gone further. It has entered the offensive counterintelligence phase. It means, instead of waiting for them to recruit spies, or dispatch spies to our land, we have gone straight to the main source; we have infiltrated in Iran Desk in their services. When they are trying to recruit people as their spies, from the very beginning, our forces would notice.”

Alavi pointed out that Iran maintains special intelligence relationships with the friendly countries in the region and elsewhere. 

“Iran’s Intelligence Ministry has intelligence ambassadors in tens of countries. They do intelligence missions in cooperation with those countries’ intelligence services. It means we consider these services as friendly services and exchange intelligence with them. We give them intelligence and they give us intelligence.”

“Well, it is natural that in this offensive counterintelligence, the intelligence we gain may be useful for other counties which are our friends, which cooperate with us in the intelligence arena. We give them intelligence and in many cases they have managed to deliver blows to CIA spies in their countries.”

The minister warned citizens to stay extra vigilant against falling into pits and elusive traps of the enemy’s spy networks.

He stated that suspects had been "employed at sensitive and crucial centers and also the private sector related to them.

“When the spies are recruited by the enemy’s services, they are not brought in espionage with simple instructions. They are taken to third countries to receive complicated training courses on espionage in vital centers like nuclear, military and police centers.”

“Nowadays, espionage is no longer like the old traditional one. It is not merely person-oriented. It is on the one hand based on online platform. Collecting intelligence, recruiting and connecting with spies via online platform… in the form of financial companies, knowledge enterprises, scientific institutions…”

“At first, these people are unaware of the fact that they are dealing with an intelligence service. They think they are a scientific institution or a financial company and therefore keep cooperating until they find themselves in an intelligence trap. “

The minister asserted that the CIA networks and rings have been dismantled a CIA spy rings and driven out of the country.

“The CIA was forced at some points to recall its forces; to call on its spies to exit Iran or other countries. And this made their network out of order; reduce their access to intelligence and in other words, they lost their eyes in collecting intelligence. “

“In addition to the fact that we are in contact with intelligence services outside the country and the fact that through cooperation with different intelligence services we have increased our intelligence power against US intelligence services, we cooperate with the intelligence community inside the country. According to the constitution, Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence is regarded as the mother of the intelligence community; we have constant cooperation with the intelligence community. This has set the groundwork to identity hired spies in different apparatuses inside the country. They have mostly been identified, arrested and handed over to the judiciary power. “

The minister concluded by saying that Iran had used technologically advanced methods to infiltrated the CIA spy networks and had broken up dozens of strong rings of American spies over the past few years

“Our intelligence service is in control. Those who are under control would not notice it.  Without being aware, they are under Iran’s full intelligence control. Those with whom the enemy’s intelligence service get contact, we have them under control. Those with whom the service gets contact and they are fully aware of the contact are also under our control. Even those who are equipped with highly secure online systems should know that these systems would not shield them against our intelligence control. They cannot keep on their acts of betrayal away from the eyes of Iran’s Intelligence Ministry or betray their country for financial or foreign visa incentives and the like."

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