FP Explainer

Can the CIA Keep Defectors from Redefecting?

No.

DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images
DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images

Iranian nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri, who has been missing for over a year, has reportedly taken refuge at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington and wants to return to Iran. Amiri claims to have been kidnapped by the Central Intelligence Agency, though it had been reported earlier that Amiri had defected of his own free will and had been resettled in the United States by the CIA. Assuming Amiri did defect, would the CIA have any way to keep him for going back to Iran?

Not really. Public Law 110, part of the 1949 act that established the agency, gives the CIA director the authority to bring up to 100 aliens per year into the United States for national security reasons. But once the "110s," as they are known (defectors of lesser importance are called "55s"), are brought into the country and given citizenship, they aren’t prisoners and the CIA can’t legally keep them locked up. Presumably, not many people would be anxious to defect if this wasn’t the case.

The agency has been less than scrupulous about following this law in the past. Yuri Nosenko, a KGB lieutenant colonel who defected to the United States in 1964, was held in a small concrete cell in Virginia for over three years and allegedly tortured after the agency’s counterintelligence chief, James Jesus Angleton, became convinced that his defection wasn’t genuine. Nosenko was eventually released and settled in an undisclosed location in the American south, where he lived until his death in 2008.

Nosenko’s treatment was controversial even at the time, and the agency became much friendlier toward KGB defectors in the latter years of the Cold War. When KGB colonel Vitaly Yurchenko (above) defected in 1985, the agency went out of its way to keep him happy, including taking him on a tour of the American west and arranging a meeting with his mistress in Montreal — though she told him she had been in love with a KGB officer, not a traitor. Partially as a result of this disappointment, he walked away from his CIA handler in a Georgetown restaurant several months later and returned to the Soviet Embassy. (Like Amiri, Yurchenko told the press that he had been kidnapped and tortured.)

After the embarrassment of the Yurchenko affair and subsequent congressional hearings, the agency created new procedures to handle defectors, including designating a case officer for each individual. After all, high-profile defectors are generally not in the best mental state when they come over, and keeping them happy can be a full-time job. As a fast-rising CIA official named Robert M. Gates told Congress in 1985, that officer should be ”somebody … that understands him and understands his concerns and can identify when he is going through a particular psychological crisis.”

Nonetheless, the agency continued to have trouble keeping a handle on its high-value KGB defectors. In 1989, former KGB colonel Victor Gundarev went public with his complaints that his CIA handlers had put him in mind to redefect or move to "any other country to live in."

The sequence of events that led Amiri to try to return to Iran are still unclear, but if it turns out that he had second thoughts about his new life in America, he would hardly be the first.

Thanks to Milton Bearden, retired CIA officer and co-author of The Main Enemy: The Inside Story of the CIA’s Final Showdown with the KGB.

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