A Squirrely Mission

If you wanted to be a secret agent — think James Bond — you probably want to be able to play it cool and casual. Blending in is the name of the game, because if you seem out of place, you’re almost certainly going to draw more attention than you’d like, and that’s a bad idea. You don’t want to act squirrely, for example; Dictionary.com defines “squirrely” as “eccentric, flighty,” and that’s the opposite of what makes for a good spy.

Someone should tell that to Iran.

In 2007, Iran uncovered what they claimed to be a spy network of 14 agents trying to gather intelligence about the Persian Gulf nation. The government-sponsored news agency, IRNA, stated (via YNetNews.com) that the operatives were “carrying spy gear of foreign agencies, and were stopped before they could act, thanks to the alertness of our intelligence services.” YNetNews reported that the Iranians believed the spies were working on behalf of “Western powers determined to undermine the Islamic Republic.” The dozen or so spies were promptly arrested and dealt with however Iran deals with spies, which is probably too graphic to discuss here, but went unreported regardless.

That’s not all that strange, of course — it shouldn’t be terribly surprising to hear that nations are spying on one another and that on occasion, the spies are caught. But in this case, the spies themselves were the headline. The spies were eccentric, that’s for sure. And by definition, they were squirrelly.

That’s because they were actually squirrels.

Yes, the small-ish rodents more famous for hoarding nuts than state secrets.

The Iranian claims are almost certainly untrue. NPR’s All Things Considered spoke to a couple of experts — Bob Baer, a former CIA case officer and John Koprowski, a wildlife professor who wrote a book titled “North American Tree Squirrels” — about the likelihood of using squirrels as spies. In response to host Robert Siegel question as to whether the CIA would ever consider “dispatching a squirrel with a GPS and an eavesdropping device over the border to check something out,” Baer said, unequivocally, no, they wouldn’t — “it’s complete idiocy. You can’t use squirrels for espionage.” Dr. Koprowksi agreed: “I’ve been studying them for about 26 years, and I think that their elusiveness in the field, it would be incredibly difficult to, kind of, funnel that and to channel that elusiveness in a creative way, I think.” Another report cited an unnamed foreign service official who had a sense of humor simply stated that “the story is nuts.“

Most likely, the Iranian news agency, acting on behalf of the government, was engaged in a minor propaganda campaign, hoping to convince its people that the world turned against them — even the rodents.

Bonus Fact: Squirrels don’t just eat nuts. They eat, well, almost everything. Wikipedia notes that squirrels have been caught eating nuts, acorns, seed, pine cones, and other vegetation, but also mushrooms, insects, snakes, birds, and chickens.

From the ArchivesThe Tales of the Prairie Dog: They’re pretty awesome.

Related: Professor Koprowski’s co-authored book, “North American Tree Squirrels.” Eight reviews, seven of which are for four or five stars. The 8th? It’s a two star review, pasted here unedited: “The book is probably 80% about the process of studying squirrels and 20% about squirrels. If you are interested in how to conduct field studies okay if you want to learn about squirrels I’d look elsewhere.”