Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Strange Stories of an Accused Spy

Amir Hekmati
On Monday, January 9th, Iran's Revolutionary Court found 29-year-old Amir Hekmati "Corrupt on Earth and Mohareb,” and sentenced him to death as a US spy. (“Mohareb” is legal term identifying a defendant as someone who is waging war against God, or God and the State.) The verdict against Hekmati, a US citizen, is creating an international incident, but the story Hekmati tells in his “confession” is a strange tale of the CIA using games to influence popular opinion.

Amir Hekmati was born in Arizona to Iranian parents, and graduated from high school in Michigan. In his confession, he claims to have entered the US military in 2001, where he was trained and deployed as an interpreter because of his familiarity with the Farsi language. The US military regularly uses Iranian-Americans as translators in Afghanistan because Farsi is spoken in both countries.

After serving in Iraq for several months (the confession claims), Hekmati went to work for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. DARPA is a super-secret group that is described, on their publicly-available website, as being established in 1958 “to prevent strategic surprise from negatively impacting U.S. national security and create strategic surprise for U.S. adversaries by maintaining the technological superiority of the U.S. military.” DARPA is, essentially, a high-tech R&D contractor for the US Department of Defense.

Now, here’s where things get weird. In the interest of just reporting the facts as stated, this is what Hekmati said in a confession broadcast on Iranian state television and obtained, we are certain, without any coercion, threats, or use physical force:

“After DARPA, I was recruited by Kuma Games Company, a computer games company which received money from CIA to design and make special films and computer games to change the public opinion’s mindset in the Middle East and distribute them among Middle East residents free of charge. The goal of Kuma Games was to convince the people of the world and Iraq that what the US does in Iraq and other countries is good and acceptable. The head of Kuma called me and said I have received your resume from DARPA, and we have a program in which you can help us. It [Kuma] was also a cover for the CIA and only the chief of company knows that you're working with the agency.”

Hekmati’s father, Ali, a professor of microbiology at Mitt College in Flint, Michigan, contradicts this version of events. He told the UK Telegraph that his son was in Iran visiting his grandparents. "He is not a spy. It's a whole bunch of lies on my good son. They have lied about any American ... captured in Iran for visiting or tourism, or for any other reason. The first two weeks went without incident. The third week in Tehran, some people visited him and took him away. Nobody heard from him in the next three months."

Kuma Reality Games was founded in 2004, and is based in New York. They are best known for a series of poorly-regarded downloadable military first-person shooters, often with a “ripped from the headlines” premise. Users can download new episodes containing missions such as the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden. They’re also responsible for Dinohunters, a game of almost sublime awfulness. One of their few innovations is the use of sponsored advertising in free games.

Some of Kuma’s shooters may well be intended for the military, which often uses software for recruitment and training purposes. In 2006, Keith Halper, the head of Kuma, admitted to Kotaku.com that Kuma created training simulations for the US Army.
Dionohunters (Kuma Games) was created by the CIA
to convince Iranians that the US has an elite force of
dinosaurs on flying scooters equipped with machine guns.

Kuma also releases a steady stream of machinima, which are short films created using game engines. Some of these are just silly or promotional, while others depict military operations. The tone of the military shooters is sober and undeniably pro-American, with coalition soldiers shown taking down terrorist targets or conducting important military operations. It’s not particularly hard to see it as a coordinated propaganda effort, but it’s also not hard to see it as yet another military shooter with a Western/American point of view. Aside from its use of contemporary missions, nothing about Kuma’s work stands out one way or another.

The uniquely peculiar part about the “trial” of Hekmati is that the main charge against him was not for his work—real or not—with Kuma, but for working in Iran as a CIA spy. He was allegedly ordered to give Iranian Intelligence good information in order to get their trust, and then to start providing them with misinformation. He was allegedly captured before he could begin this alleged mission.

Of course, this version of events would ask us to believe that Hekmati’s employment at a company producing widely-available pro-American propaganda was merely cover for his role as a CIA agent, which would be a rather curious way of approaching a covert operation.

Although Iranian death sentences are usually carried out quickly and brutally, it’s more likely than Hekmati will be kept alive and used as a pawn in the ongoing geopolitical struggle between Iran and the West. 

Written for Games Magazine


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