CIA football website blunder put Iran spies in danger

Gholamreza Hosseini said he was caught while trying to leave Tehran by plane after the CIA blunder - Reuters
Gholamreza Hosseini said he was caught while trying to leave Tehran by plane after the CIA blunder - Reuters

Blundering CIA agents used an insecure fake Persian football website to speak to their informers in Iran - leading to their capture when it was compromised, according to a major investigation raising serious questions about safeguards for Western spies.

According to an investigation by Reuters, the CIA set up a number of bland current affairs websites containing secret chat boxes, where informers exchanged information with their handlers.

Iranian authorities intercepted the websites and then used the details to capture the spies. One of the ex-informers interviewed by Reuters, Gholamreza Hosseini, said he was caught while trying to leave Tehran by plane and had to eat a memory card containing state secrets.

Reuters said it used an internet archive to locate the websites used by the CIA, which are feared to have exposed at least 20 agents in Iran and potentially hundreds of other spies around the world.

Several former US officials confirmed the existence of the websites, which would reveal a secret communications system once a password was typed into the search bar.

'Stain on the US government'

The news agency interviewed six men who served sentences of up to 10 years after they were exposed by Iran, including four who remain in the country and are at risk of being re-arrested. Two others escaped but are living as stateless refugees.

"It’s a stain on the US government,” Mr Hosseini, who said he supplied the Americans with maps of the Natanz nuclear facility, told Reuters.

The case suggests that the CIA has been reckless in its safeguards for spies helping to provide information about Iran's nuclear programme. The country is close to finishing work on a nuclear weapon, according to Israeli and US officials.

Tammy Kupperman Thorp, a CIA spokesman, declined to comment on Mr Hosseini's ordeal - but insisted that the CIA took great care to protect those who provided it with information.

“CIA takes its obligations to protect the people that work with us very seriously and we know that many do so bravely at great personal risk,” she said. “The notion that [the] CIA would not work as hard as possible to safeguard them is false."

'Shame on us' if reckless

The Iranian foreign ministry declined to comment when approached by Reuters. However, Iranian state media reports have celebrated a crackdown on spies, beginning in 2009, which is claimed to have exposed dozens of CIA informants.

James Olson, a former head of CIA counterintelligence, said that any unnecessary compromise of informants was a major failure on the part of the CIA.

“If we’re careless, if we’re reckless and we’ve been penetrated, then shame on us,” Mr Olson told Reuters. “If people paid the price of trusting us enough to share information and they paid a penalty, then we have failed morally.”