CBC Radio ran a short documentary over the weekend on the slightly strange and potentially tragic case of Amir Mirza Hekmati, an American who was captured by Iranian authorities and labeled a C.I.A. spy this past December while supposedly visiting family. He now faces the death penalty.
Mr. Hekmati is a former U.S. Marine who received Arabic language training and did linguistic work for DARPA. These facts aren't in dispute.
The strange part of the story comes in his confession, which ran in Iranian media. It at least partially focuses on his involvement with a New York company called Kuma Games, a small developer of free, browser-based episodic games that often tie in with modern military conflicts (one of the company's 2011 titles allowed players to recreate the U.S. raid that ended with the death of Osama bin Laden).
In his confession – which, for all we know, could have been made under duress – Mr. Hekmati says the company is funded by the C.I.A. and has the objective of convincing people in Iran and around the world that American military policies in the Middle East are just and necessary.
Kuma Games has been keeping mum on the subject, though the CBC's documentary suggests that Mr. Hekmati did work on a language training program developed by Kuma Games that received Department of Defense funding.
It's no secret that the U.S. government – particularly the Army – has a history of funding games to further their own goals, and that the broad national and international reach of games makes them a great platform for delivering messages. This would seem to give the Kuma Games-as-propaganda-machine idea some credibility.
That said, the audience reached via the kind of games Kuma Games makes is severely limited. One would imagine that the people who play these games have little if any real value to the C.I.A. Why target them for a propaganda message?
Perhaps even more important, why would the C.I.A. fund a small maker of simple computer games when there are already plenty of non-government funded military-themed games – such as Medal of Honor, Call of Duty, and Battlefield – that sell millions of copies around the world and tend to espouse a similar rah-rah U.S. military viewpoint?
If Kuma Games is indeed a CIA-funded agency dedicated to disseminating American propaganda, then it would seem a highly inefficient intelligence effort. As one of the doc's interviewees puts it, "This low level propaganda is just a waste of money."
A waste of money, and perhaps a waste of life, given that Mr. Hekmati's involvement with Kuma Games seems to have played a significant role in his imminent execution.
You can listen to the CBC documentary here.