WASHINGTON // The CIA's operations in Lebanon have been badly damaged after Hizbollah identified and captured a number of US spies recently, current and former US officials said. The intelligence debacle is particularly troubling because the CIA saw it coming.
Hizbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, boasted on television in June that he had rooted out at least two CIA spies who had infiltrated the ranks of his group. Though the US Embassy in Lebanon officially denied the accusation, current and former officials concede that it happened and the damage has spread even further.
The Lebanon crisis is the latest mishap involving CIA counterintelligence, the undermining or manipulating of the enemy's ability to gather information. Former CIA officials have said that once-essential skill has been eroded as the agency shifted from outmanoeuvring rival spy agencies to fighting terrorists. In the rush for immediate results tradecraft has suffered, former officers say.
The CIA was well aware the spies were vulnerable in Lebanon. CIA officials were warned, including the chief of the unit that supervises Hizbollah operations from CIA headquarters and the head of counterintelligence. It remains unclear whether anyone has been or will be held accountable in the wake of this counterintelligence disaster or whether the incident will affect the CIA's ability to recruit assets in Lebanon.
A US official said Hizbollah is recognised as a complicated enemy responsible for killing more Americans than any other group before September 2001. The agency does not underestimate the organisation, the official said.
The US State Department last year described Hizbollah as "the most technically capable terrorist group in the world", and the defence department estimates it receives between US$100 million (Dh367m) and $200 million per year in funding from Iran.
Backed by Iran, Hizbollah has built a professional counterintelligence apparatus that Mr Nasrallah proudly describes as the "spy combat unit". US intelligence officials believe the unit went operational in about 2004.
Using the latest commercial software, Mr Nasrallah's spy-hunters unit began methodically searching for spies in Hizbollah's midst. To find them, US officials said, Hizbollah examined cellphone data looking for anomalies. The analysis identified cellphones that, for instance, were used rarely or always from specific locations and only for a short period of time. Then it came down to old-fashioned, shoe-leather detective work: who in that area had information that might be worth selling to the enemy?
The effort took years but eventually Hizbollah, and later the Lebanese government, began making arrests. By one estimate, 100 Israeli assets were apprehended as the news made headlines across the region in 2009.
Back at CIA headquarters, the arrests alarmed officials. The agency prepared a study on its own vulnerabilities, US officials said, and the results proved to be prescient.
The analysis concluded that the CIA was susceptible to the same analysis that had compromised the Israelis, the officials said.
CIA managers were instructed to be extra careful about handling sources in Lebanon. A US official said recommendations were issued to counter the potential problem.
But it's unclear what preventive measures were taken by the Hizbollah unit chief or the officer in charge of the Beirut station.
"We've lost a lot of people in Beirut over the years, so everyone should know the drill," said a former Middle East case officer familiar with the situation.
But whatever actions the CIA took, they were not enough. Like the Israelis, bad tradecraft doomed these CIA assets and the agency ultimately failed to protect them, an official said. In some instances, CIA officers fell into predictable patterns when meeting their sources, the official said.
Mr Nasrallah's televised announcement in June was followed by finger pointing among departments inside the CIA as the spy agency tried to work out what went wrong and contain the damage.
The fate of these CIA assets is unknown. Hizbollah treats spies differently, said Matthew Levitt, a counterterrorism and intelligence expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies who's writing a book about the organisation.
"It all depends on who these guys were and what they have to say," Mr Levitt said.
"Hizbollah has disappeared people before. Others they have kept around."