By David Zucchino Los Angeles Times
ARLINGTON, Va. — His disguise consists of a blue surgeon’s mask, sunglasses and a baseball cap that reads “Free Iran.” A small modulator distorts his voice. He uses a pseudonym, Reza Kahlili.
He lives in fear, he says, because his years as a paid spy for the CIA inside Iran have made him an assassination target of Iran’s government. He worries about his wife and children, who live with him in California.
At the same time, implausibly, he has become one of the most influential and outspoken voices in the U.S. advocating the overthrow of the Iranian government.
For the last two years, Kahlili has gone semipublic with a memoir, a blog, op-ed pieces and invitation-only speeches at think tanks. He warns that Iran operates terrorist sleeper cells inside the United States and is determined to build nuclear weapons to destroy Israel. The U.S. should respond, he argues, by supporting the opposition inside Iran.
He travels furtively between appearances, working as a Pentagon consultant and as a member of a domestic security task force.
“There’s probably nobody better on our side in explaining the mind-set of those in power in Iran,” said Peter Vincent Pry, a former CIA military analyst who directs the Task Force on National and Homeland Security. “He understands the ideological sources of Iran’s nuclear program.”
U.S. Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said Kahlili has convinced him of the importance of supporting the opposition and hardening sanctions against Iran.
“I thought I knew a lot about Iran until meeting with him,” King said on a New York political radio program in January. At the time, Kahlili was a guest and King was a guest-host, but the two had previously met in the congressman’s office.
“If you’re going to take this issue seriously, the one person you have to consult with and read his writings is Reza Kahlili,” King said.
In a quiet hotel lounge in Arlington, Kahlili is not wearing his disguise or using his voice modulator for a meeting with a reporter.
“You’d be shocked by how easily agents from the Revolutionary Guard come and go inside the United States every day,” Kahlili says in a near-whisper, bent over a table in a dark corner.
A soft-spoken man in his mid-50s, Kahlili is wearing jeans, a sports shirt and a black coat. He’s of average height and weight, with a smattering of facial hair.
He made certain he wasn’t followed, he says, and performed a quick security check of the hotel.
“They’d kill me if they could find me,” he says of Iranian agents.
Mark Zaid, a national security lawyer in Washington, D.C., said he had confirmed that Kahlili was a longtime operative of a U.S. intelligence agency, adding: “He has insights on Iran most people in the U.S. intelligence community don’t have.”
For covert operatives, clearance agreements with the CIA often prohibit public acknowledgment of the agreement itself or of the CIA. A CIA spokesman, Todd D. Ebitz, said the agency had no comment on Kahlili.
Brian Weidner, program coordinator for Iran instruction at the Joint Counterintelligence Training Academy, confirmed that Kahlili is a paid lecturer for the Pentagon agency. Other instructors are videotaped, Kahlili says, but his lectures are audio-only to protect his identity.
Kahlili says he lived a double life until the mid-1990s, passing along secrets to the CIA and recruiting Revolutionary Guards for the agency. In a sense, he resumed his double identity after publishing his 2010 memoir; he was now a former covert agent who had thrust himself into the public eye.
He rarely leaves home — “my bunker,” he jokes — and shuns social situations.
For years, his mother in Iran berated him for working for a regime she despised; she died never knowing about his CIA spy work, he says. His children know nothing of his background. His Iranian wife was unaware of his spying for years, and was hurt, angry and terrified when he finally told her.
“It took a long time for that to heal, and for her to understand why I did it,” Kahlili says. Though his wife is pleased that he has publicized Iran’s human rights abuses, he says, she has begged him to go back into hiding.
He is pained by regrets. “I put my family in danger without giving it much thought,” he says. “They didn’t know what I’d done, but they were in as much danger as I was.”
The spy story Kahlili tells in his book, and in several interviews with The Times, features coded messages, disinformation, clandestine meetings and international intrigue.
After graduating from USC, Kahlili returned to Iran just before the 1979 revolution toppled the Shah. A childhood friend recruited him into the Revolutionary Guard, where he gained an insider’s access to the new Islamic government — and where he was to turn against the regime.
The Guard executed teenage girls for associating with opposition groups, but first raped them to deny them the heavenly paradise guaranteed to virgins. One of Kahlili’s best friends and the man’s two siblings were tortured and executed.
Eventually, he persuaded his superiors to let him fly to Los Angeles, telling them that his aunt there was ill. He looked up the FBI in the phone book and persuaded two agents to meet with him. They sent him to a CIA handler in London. He passed polygraph exams and returned to Iran as Wally, a secret agent who communicated via coded letters and radio messages.
Kahlili says Iranian terrorist cells inside the U.S. have weapons, explosives, money and safe houses; they use contacts with Mexican and Latin American drug cartels to smuggle explosives and weapons into the U.S.
“They have very detailed information about sensitive sites such as bridges, railroads, airports, military bases, power plants, nuclear sites, water plants, railway stations,” he says.
If the U.S. or Israel attacked Iran, he says, sleeper cells inside the U.S. would launch suicide bombings and sabotage. Iran would attack Israel, and U.S. bases in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf, he warns.
Kahlili says Iran has intelligence agents inside American universities, Islamic cultural centers and charitable institutions, posing as academics, policy experts and officers of nonprofits. They try to influence policymakers to encourage negotiations in order to give Iran time to develop nuclear weapons.
Kahlili says the Iranian leadership is motivated by Mahdism, the messianic belief that the 12th imam of Shiism, the Mahdi, will one day reappear to establish universal Islam. The trigger is the destruction of Israel.
Sanctions against Iran won’t work, Kahlili argues. “It’s not about the economy. It’s about ideology,” he says.
Inside the hotel lounge, Kahlili appears worn and weary. He glances around. He says Iranian agents are trying to find him and his family.
“I have a lot of anxiety — I feel a lot of pressure,” he says. “I feel sick sometimes and I can’t sleep.”
There is only so much he can do to protect his family, he says. “If [Iran] found out about me, we’d be sitting ducks,” he said.
He smiles wanly. “Sometimes I think I should stop,” he says. “I think I must be crazy.”
But in the same breath, he also says the American public must be told about what is happening in Iran and what could happen in the United States. Iran’s regime must fall, he says.
And then he is gone, out the busy hotel lobby and into the night, a man with an assumed name living a life on the margins, running to and from his past.