Iranian state television aired what it called a “confession” by 28-year-old Amir Hekmati last week. His family in Michigan said he was arrested while visiting his grandmothers and other relatives in Iran, and that his statement had to have been coerced.
The Islamic Republic said Hekmati worked for different US intelligence agencies, including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). DARPA is known worldwide as a major technology center; it is not an intelligence agency.
Sherri Condon, a software engineer, said she worked with Hekmati in 2008 and 2009 on an effort to develop a two-way, hand-held electronic translator. The project was a DARPA contract.
Condon was the lead author of a 2008 paper describing the research. She thanks Hekmati in the published acknowledgments.
In an interview with CNN, she described him as “an entrepreneurial guy” who sent colleagues a holiday card with a quote from Benjamin Franklin: “Be always at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let each new year find you a better man.”
“I really like him,” said Condon, who identified Hekmati from the images released by Iranian state television. “He wasn’t too nose-to-the-grindstone, but he really worked and put out good effort on behalf of these programs we worked with.”
The work funded by DARPA was aimed at improving communications between US troops and local populations—a problem with which Hekmati had grappled during service with the Marines as an infantryman in Iraq. He appeared in a video that touted the “souped-up iPods,” and he described how American troops sometimes lost hours waiting for a translator to help them pose simple questions.
Condon said, “He knew enough to be very helpful for us, and he was very helpful to us in terms of understanding the context in which the devices might be used. He had the military experience.”
The Arizona-born, Michigan-raised Hekmati joined the Marines in August 2001 after high school. His military service record, which is public information, shows he joined the infantry and underwent basic training at Camp Pendleton in southern California. His four-year hitch included an assignment to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, to study Arabic. But he did not complete that course of study.
He also had a six-month deployment to Iraq in 2004. He was awarded the combat action ribbon, which is given to Marines who engaged in direct combat. He was promoted multiple times and ended his service as a sergeant.
His father said he worked as a translator for US troops in Iraq. But his service record said he was there as a rifleman. A Marine spokesperson said it was reasonable that with his Arabic background he would have done translations for his unit on an informal basis.
In 2006, after leaving the service, he started his own linguistics company and began offering his services as an English-to-Arabic translator, according to Michigan incorporation records. He contracted his services to the military as well as civilian businesses, offering training in cultural competency and working with troops at military bases to promote understanding of and positive communication with people of other cultures, his family said.
In 2010, he spent five months working as a research manager for defense contractor BAE, company spokesman Brian Roehrkasse told CNN. And Condon said Hekmati recently worked for a company that produced language-training material for the US military.
In the televised confession, an announcer described all these jobs as postings to different intelligence centers that were used to prepare him to infiltrate Iranian intelligence.
Hekmati’s family said that two weeks after his arrival in Tehran, he was arrested August 29. Iranian officials then told the family to remain silent “with the promise of an eventual release.” They went public only after Iranian television aired the “confession.”
His father, Ali Hekmati, a college professor in Flint, Michigan, said that since the son’s arrest, only his grandmothers have been allowed a few visits to him in prison.
In Washington, US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters Tuesday that Hekmati is being falsely accused, but had no further comment.
At Tehran Friday prayers last week, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati said in his sermon, “I congratulate all those who played a role in the capture of this CIA spy.” He said the capture was a great accomplishment for Iran “because this spy had a lot of intelligence information. And that’s why the Americans are so mad about his arrest.”
Jannati said the Americans are confused and upset because Hekmati was a very important agent for them.