It was described as “the most successful strategic deception in the history of warfare.” During World War II’s Operation Mincemeat, the man at the center of the plot never knew he was—having died months earlier by his own hand. The identity of “the man who never was” is still debated, but he is believed to be Glyndwr Michael.
Michael’s body, preserved in a morgue after his January 1943 death, became key to a British intelligence plot. In April, dressed in the uniform of a British Army major, the body was given identification papers for a fictitious “Major Martin.” Attached to Michael’s wrist by chain and lock was a briefcase containing false “secret” documents of a bogus Allied invasion. Transported by submarine to the coast of Spain, the body was slipped into the sea. As hoped, it washed ashore and was discovered—the briefcase’s contents immediately being examined by the Nazis. While they knew an Allied invasion of Southern Europe was imminent, the Nazis did not know where it would occur. The Allies’ counter-intelligence plan worked. The enemy was duped—diverting forces from Sicily, where the attack actually occurred in July, to Greece, where the documents falsely indicated it would happen.
Warfare—both “hot” and “cold”—is a constant battle to gain an edge over the enemy. It can be achieved by gaining intelligence about enemy capabilities and plans or by misleading the enemy as to one’s own capabilities and plans. Depending on intent, the counter-intelligence game can be played to create a false perception by either showing a threat exists when it does not or does not exist when it does.
The former occurred when Saddam Hussein created the ruse Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. He did this, not to start a war with the US, but to prevent one with Iran. Having already fought a costly eight-year conflict with Tehran, Saddam wanted to hold over the heads of the Iranians the perceived threat of a nuclear strike against them. Interestingly, the former director of Saddam’s nuclear research program wrote in 2004 Iraq’s counter-intelligence effort was so effective, the dictator actually believed he had the weapons. Ironically, the deception eventually triggered a US invasion—and Saddam’s downfall. Conversely, Iran’s counter-intelligence over the past several years has sought to fool the world it poses no threat when it does—as Tehran remains committed to developing nuclear weapons.
While Iran improves at spinning its counter-intelligence yarns, the credibility of duped U.S. intelligence analysts suffers. Most notable is the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate in which the U.S. intelligence community reported, “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” Now, intelligence analysts—believing Iran never halted work on its nuclear weapons program—are preparing a new estimate. But Iran’s ability to confuse US analysts on this critical issue has generated a sobering question from one U.S. Congressman. Anticipating a new report from our intelligence community and critical of the old one, Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.) asks, “Why would I take the one in 2010 they are doing any more seriously, just because I like the outcome?”
Iran’s counter-intelligence efforts have successfully cross-pollinated into Iraq. One example, illustrative of what Americans wrongly perceive as just a “cold” war with Iran while Iran perceives it to be “hot,” took place in Karbala—a city situated 60 miles southwest of Baghdad.
On Jan. 20, 2007, in what was called the “boldest and most sophisticated attack in four years of warfare” in Iraq, militants—dressed and armed as Americans, speaking perfect English and driving US SUVs—infiltrated the provincial governor’s compound where US and Iraqi officials were meeting. Targeting only Americans, they killed one soldier and took four prisoner. With captives in tow and Iraqi police in hot pursuit, they headed for the Iranian border. But as their pursuers closed in, the militants abandoned their SUVs and uniforms—executing their captives. All four were found bound with gunshot wounds to the head. The attack had Iranian fingerprints all over it.
Iran’s counter-intelligence efforts have also been forged in a way so as to deny the US a very important arrow in its quiver of options to curtail Tehran’s influence.
An Iranian opposition group, known as Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), has been fighting Iran’s mullahs ever since the clerics rode Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s coattails to power in 1979. Targeted for persecution and elimination, MEK escaped, eventually finding itself in 1986—at Saddam Hussein’s invitation—residing in Iraq’s Camp Ashraf along Iran’s border. As Saddam viewed hosting Iran’s main opposition group as a buffer against Iranian aggression, Tehran focused on other ways of limiting the group’s ability to interfere with the mullahs’ evil intentions. In 1997, Iran’s President Mohammad Khatami duped President Clinton into believing a US designation of MEK as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) would generate better relations with Iran. MEK’s listing followed but improved US/Iran relations did not. The UK and EU also then listed MEK as a terrorist organization. In 2003, President Bush was duped as well, again by (the supposedly moderate) Khatami, who promised to stay out of Iraq for Washington’s promise to bomb, disarm and contain MEK. The US promise was kept—evidenced by a de-fanged MEK now under guard at Camp Ashraf, theoretically under UN protection—while Iran’s was not, as it continues to foster violence in Iraq. Playing on its sectarian relationship with Baghdad’s Shi’ite government, Tehran’s Shi’ite leaders pressure the latter to expel MEK or return members to Tehran.
Meanwhile, as MEK successfully appealed its UK and EU terrorist listings in 2008, the Bush administration, in its waning days, rejected MEK’s appeal. The U.S. Court of Appeals heard this issue Jan. 12, including intelligence from the same agencies that earlier determined (wrongly) Iran was not a threat.
The courtroom was cleared following a public hearing so Department of Justice attorneys representing the U.S. State Department could provide classified intelligence on MEK. As such intelligence should not have been dissimilar to that given in the UK and EU courts resulting in its MEK de-listing decision, MEK supporters should seem confident the US Court—which has yet to render a decision—will reach a similar conclusion. But, with intelligence analysts whose assessments change with the wind, concerns linger—particularly, when weighed against the backdrop of an effective Iranian counter-intelligence effort to eliminate MEK.
Incredibly, our intelligence analysts seem again to be relying on bogus Iranian counter-intelligence. One report cites anonymous sources as evidence MEK still holds terrorist intentions—claiming MEK may have planned suicide attacks in Karbala (where Iran is active). Such allegations defy logic. Not only had MEK renounced terrorism in 2001, not only had MEK established a history of non-violent activity since then to justify de-listing, not only had MEK voluntarily surrendered its weapons to the US in 2003, not only did MEK lack the weapons and transportation necessary to conduct an attack in Karbala 120 miles away, not only did MEK lack the intentions to conduct such an attack on a target that contradicts its entire history of activities
but MEK was also under continuous 24-hour guard by U.S. forces at Camp Ashraf, thus making any such operation impossible. The only logical source for such MEK allegations is Iranian counter-intelligence which, again, appears to have confounded US analysts.
World War II’s Operation Mincemeat demonstrated the West’s ingenuity in implementing complex counter-intelligence plans. By successfully planting allegations of unproven terrorist intent by an MEK incapable of delivering on any such threat—duping US intelligence analysts and possibly denying MEK FTO de-listing in the process—Iran has demonstrated the simple ingenuity of theirs.
Lieutenant Colonel James Zumwalt is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the 1989 intervention into Panama and Desert Storm. An author, speaker and business executive, he also currently heads a security consulting firm named after his father—Admiral Zumwalt & Consultants, Inc.