The long read: In order to tempt nuclear scientists from countries such as Iran or North Korea to defect, US spy agencies routinely send agents to academic conferences or even host their own fake ones
The CIA agent tapped softly on the hotel room door. After the keynote speeches, panel discussions and dinner, the conference attendees had retired for the night. Audio and visual surveillance of the room showed that the nuclear scientists minders from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps were sleeping, but he was still awake. Sure enough, he opened the door, alone.
According to a person familiar with this encounter, which took place about a decade ago, the agency had been preparing it for months. Through a business front, it had funded and staged the conference at an unsuspecting foreign centre of scientific research, invited speakers and guests, and planted operatives among the kitchen workers and other staff, just so it could entice the nuclear expert out of Iran, separate him for a few minutes from his guards, and pitch him one-to-one. A last-minute snag had almost derailed the plans: the target switched hotels because the conferences preferred hotel cost $75 more than his superiors in Iran were willing to spend.
To show his sincerity and goodwill, the agent put his hand over his heart. Salam habibi, he said. Im from the CIA, and I want you to board a plane with me to the United States. The agent could read the Iranians reactions on his face: a mix of shock, fear and curiosity. From prior experience with defectors, he knew the thousand questions flooding the scientists mind: What about my family? How will you protect me? Where will I live? How will I support myself? How do I get a visa? Do I have time to pack? What happens if I say no?
The scientist started to ask one, but the agent interrupted him. First, get the ice bucket, he said.
If any of your guards wake up, you can tell them youre going to get some ice.
In perhaps its most audacious and elaborate incursion into academia, the CIA has secretly spent millions of dollars staging scientific conferences around the world. Its purpose was to lure Iranian nuclear scientists out of their homeland and into an accessible setting, where its intelligence officers could approach them individually and press them to defect. In other words, the agency sought to delay Irans development of nuclear weapons by exploiting academias internationalism, and pulling off a mass deception on the institutions that hosted the conferences and the professors who attended and spoke at them. The people attending the conference had no idea they were acting in a drama that simulated reality but was stage-managed from afar. Whether the national security mission justified this manipulation of the professoriate can be debated, but theres little doubt that most academics would have balked at being dupes in a CIA scheme.
More than any other academic arena, conferences lend themselves to espionage. Assisted by globalisation, these social and intellectual rituals have become ubiquitous. Like stops on the world golf or tennis circuits, they sprout up wherever the climate is favourable, and draw a jet-setting crowd. What they lack in prize money, they make up for in prestige. Although researchers chat electronically all the time, virtual meetings are no substitute for getting together with peers, networking for jobs, checking out the latest gadgets and delivering papers that will later be published in volumes of conference proceedings. The attraction of the conference circuit, English novelist David Lodge wrote in Small World, his 1984 send-up of academic life, is that its a way of converting work into play, combining professionalism with tourism, and all at someone elses expense. Write a paper and see the world!
The importance of a conference may be measured not just by the number of Nobel prize-winners or Oxford dons it attracts, but by the number of spies. US and foreign intelligence officers flock to conferences for the same reason that army recruiters concentrate on low-income neighbourhoods: they make the best hunting grounds. While a university campus might have only one or two professors of interest to an intelligence service, the right conference on drone technology, perhaps, or Isis could have dozens.
Every intelligence service in the world works conferences, sponsors conferences, and looks for ways to get people to conferences, said one former CIA operative.
Recruitment is a long process of seduction, says Mark Galeotti, senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague and former special advisor to the British foreign office. The first stage is to arrange to be at the same workshop as a target. Even if you just exchange banalities, the next time you can say, Did I see you in Istanbul?
The FBI warned American academics in 2011 to be cautious about conferences, citing this scenario: A researcher receives an unsolicited invitation to submit a paper for an international conference. She submits a paper and it is accepted. At the conference, the hosts ask for a copy of her presentation. The hosts hook a thumb drive to her laptop, and unbeknownst to her, download every file and data source from her computer.