The latest conspiracy theory from Donald Trump is that Hillary Clinton’s unsanctioned email server led to the death of an American spy.
Don’t believe it.
The Iranian nuclear technician Shahram Amiri was for several years a deep cover agent inside Iran’s nuclear program before defecting to the US. Then, in 2010—apparently motivated by the seven year-old son he left behind—Amiri began communicating with Iranian authorities and shocked the world by releasing YouTube videos claiming that he had been kidnapped by US intelligence agents, tortured, and now wished to return to Iran.
It was a major diplomatic incident, and as secretary of state, Clinton was in the loop. One diplomat’s assessment was forwarded to her, saying “we have a diplomatic, ‘psychological’ issue, not a legal issue. Our friend has to be given a way out.” Asked about it publicly, she said: “He’s free to go. He was free to come. These decisions are his alone to make.”
Amiri returned to Tehran in 2010 with the help of Pakistani diplomats and reunited with his son. But he was soon arrested and was executed last week for sharing information with the US, according to Iranian state media
Clinton’s email server had nothing to with Amiri’s death—but in fact his case is still a troubling one that highlights a double standard about the way the US handles leaks. Sometimes classified information is leaked without consequence; sometimes classified information is handled carelessly and numerous investigations are launched.
Even though Amiri’s decision to return to Iran likely sealed his fate, US intelligence officials didn’t give him a chance to save his own skin when they gave classified details of his work to reporters. Amiri’s role in intelligence operations presumably remains classified; the CIA declined to comment on Amiri. But those leaks have never been publicly investigated, unlike Hillary Clinton’s email server, which has not been connected to any actual leaks.
After Amiri returned to Iran, anonymous US intelligence sources briefed numerous reporters to refute Amiri’s kidnapping accusation and Iran’s claim that he was in fact a double agent working for Tehran all along. Perhaps none was so well-sourced as the New York Times’ Pulitzer prize-winning reporter David Sanger. In 2010, US intelligence officials told Sanger said that Amiri’s “safety depends” on convincing “the Iranian security forces that he never cooperated with the United States,” but then confirmed that he was indeed a spy for several years.
“After Amiri returned to Iran it’s fair to say that American officials were far more willing to talk, particularly because they had to make the case—as Secretary Clinton did publicly—that Amiri came and went of his own free will,” Sanger told Quartz in an email today. He said those officials were reluctant to speak before Amiri left the US, but that “if you watched the videos, and knew a bit about the Iranian nuclear program and its structure, it wasn’t that hard to figure out what was going on.”
The identity of deep-cover agents and the methods that US intelligence agencies use to communicate with them are among the nation’s most closely guarded secrets.
Despite the fact that this information was leaked for political reasons—to refute the idea that the US agents had bungled an operation or broken the law—there has been no public investigation by the inspector general for the US intelligence community, or the House Select Intelligence committee. These are two offices that have been outraged by Clinton’s use of an insecure email server that handled some classified material.
We have no evidence that any of the information on Clinton’s server was actually hacked by an outside power, though it could have been. But we do know after reviewing the “classified” information, FBI director James Comey did not think Clinton’s “extremely careless” handling amount to gross negligence—there was nothing in that classified information, in other words, that would have compromised someone’s life.
Amiri case’s is a different story: Though he likely signed his own death warrant when he returned home, it can’t have helped his cause to have US officials confirming his betrayal in the press. It’s a reminder that classified information isn’t a sacred trust but a political tool, to be used—or abused.