Scientific Conferences Are Filled with Spies

AP Photo/Michel Spingler

Nations have long done battle with one another in different ways. These days, they spy from satellites, send viruses to corrupt government software, poach scientists and infiltrate academia. At The Guardian, Daniel Golden describes how international intelligence agencies send operatives to scientific conferences to gather intel, and how the U.S. has worked to convince foreign nuclear scientists to defect.

Scientific conferences attract people from all corners of the world and facilitate the exchange of information. Conferences are also one of the few opportunities for nuclear scientists from Iran to leave the country, so they function as what Golden calls “a modern-day underground railroad” for potential defectors. U.S. intelligence agencies routinely create their own sham conferences through an intermediary in order to isolate their targets and engage them one-on-one. The system has worked on many scientists. It’s fraught with many dangers: how to blend into a relatively small academic community and impersonate a scientist with actual scientific knowledge? How to get the target away from his guards without attracting attention? The larger question is whether this billion-dollar industry keeps the world safer.

“From the Iranian point of view, they would clearly have an interest in sending scientists to conferences about peaceful uses of nuclear power,” Ronen Bergman told me. A prominent Israeli journalist, Bergman is the author of The Secret War With Iran: The 30-Year Clandestine Struggle Against the World’s Most Dangerous Terrorist Power, and is working on a history of Israel’s central intelligence service, the Mossad. “They say, ‘Yes, we send our scientists to conferences to use civilian technology for a civilian purpose.’”

The CIA officer assigned to the case might pose as a student, a technical consultant, or an exhibitor with a booth. His first job would be to peel the guards away from the scientist. In one instance, kitchen staff recruited by the CIA poisoned the guards’ meal, leaving them incapacitated by diarrhoea and vomiting. The hope was that they would attribute their illness to aeroplane food or an unfamiliar cuisine.

With luck, the officer would catch the scientist alone for a few minutes, and pitch to him. He would have boned up on the Iranian by reading files and courting “access agents” close to him. That way, if the scientist expressed doubt that he was really dealing with the CIA, the officer could respond that he knew everything about him, even the most intimate details – and prove it. One officer told a potential defector: “I know you had testicular cancer and you lost your left nut.”

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