(photo credit: AP)
The CIA launched a secret program two years ago designed to degrade Iran's nuclear weapons program by persuading key officials to defect, the Los Angeles Times reported Sunday.
According to the report, several significant figures have defected as part of the program.
The previously undisclosed program, which CIA officials dubbed "the Brain Drain," is part of a major intelligence effort against Iran ordered by the White House two years ago.
Intelligence gathered as part of that campaign provided much of the basis for the National Intelligence Estimate - a US report released last week that concluded that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003.
The principal aim of the program, the newspaper claimed, is to wreck Iran's nuclear program by plucking key scientists, military officers and other personnel from its nuclear roster.
Officials said usually such programs encouraging defection did not generally seek to degrade the enemy's capabilities, suggesting that US officials believe Iran's nuclear know-how is still thin enough that it can be depleted.
The program has had limited success. Officials quoted by the LA Times said that very few well-placed Iranians had defected, and none of them had yielded comprehensive information on Teheran's nuclear program.
The defector program was implemented under CIA Director Porter J. Goss, who has since left the agency. The Times said that the agency compiled a list of officials to target as potential defectors based on a single criterion, according to a source involved in the operation: "Who, if removed from the program, would have the biggest impact on slowing or stopping their progress?"
The rewards for defectors can be substantial, said the paper, including relocation to another country and lifetime financial support.
In the two years since it was launched, the program has led to carefully orchestrated extractions of a small group of Iranian officials who operated in the mid-to-upper tiers of the Islamic Republic's nuclear programs.
None of those who defected was considered essential to the nuclear program, nor were they able to provide comprehensive descriptions of Iran's efforts, officials were quoted by the newspaper as saying.
"Did they have replacements for these people? Any country would have," the former official involved in the operation said. "But we did slow the program."