(Reuters) - In an apparently serious setback for U.S. intelligence against a key adversary, Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi'ite militia, has succeeded in identifying and arresting informants within its ranks who were working for the CIA, current and former U.S. officials said.
Separately, counterintelligence officers in Iran also succeeded in uncovering the identities of at least a handful of alleged CIA informants, the officials said.
Some former U.S. officials said that the CIA informants, believed to be local recruits rather than U.S. citizens, were uncovered, at least in part, due to sloppy procedures - known in the espionage world as "tradecraft" - used by the agency.
But Bob Baer, a former CIA operations officer whose books inspired the Hollywood movie Syriana, said that Hezbollah's counterintelligence capabilities are formidable and should not be underestimated.
"Hezbollah's security is as good as any in the world's. It's the best. It's better than that of the KGB," the former Soviet spy agency, Baer said.
Hezbollah, founded with Iranian help during Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, has grown from a militia that fought Israeli forces in south Lebanon into the most powerful political and military force in the country. Hezbollah and its allies dominate the Lebanese government formed in June.
Baer said one reason Hezbollah has been successful in rooting out spies is that it is so powerful it has forced Lebanese government security forces to hand over sensitive communications and spy gear supplied by the U.S. government. Hezbollah then used this U.S. equipment to identify and track down CIA informants.
U.S. officials were coy about the extent and seriousness of CIA losses. But they said damage to U.S. intelligence was serious enough for extensive briefings and discussions to have been held with congressional oversight committees. A congressional source said any discussions remain classified.
Hezbollah, which the U.S. government labels a terrorist group, and Iran, which it accuses of developing a nuclear weapon and sponsoring attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq, are major targets of interest for U.S. spy agencies and the White House.
There was no word about the unmasked operatives' fate.
The CIA declined to comment on the latest developments. Agency spokesman Preston Golson said the CIA "does not, as a rule discuss allegations of operational activities."
However, U.S. officials explicitly denied a claim, reported by the Los Angeles Times on Monday, that CIA operations in Lebanon have effectively been crippled due to Hezbollah's
Nonetheless, U.S. officials confirmed to Reuters that some CIA informants assigned to gather information on Hezbollah and the government of Iran had been compromised, and that any such losses are considered damaging to U.S. intelligence collection efforts.
'EXTREMELY COMPLICATED ENEMY'
"Espionage has always been a perilous business. Collecting sensitive information on adversaries who are aggressively trying to uncover spies in their midst will always be fraught with risk," said one U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The official acknowledged: "Hezbollah is an extremely complicated enemy. ... It's a determined terrorist group, a power political player, a mighty military, and an accomplished intelligence organization formidable and ruthless. No one underestimates its capabilities."
During the past year, leaders of both Hezbollah and Iran have publicly touted what they said were successes by their security and counterintelligence forces in uncovering CIA informants.
In June, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah said two of the group's members had been arrested on suspicion of being affiliated with the CIA, and a third was held for working either for the CIA or for European or Israeli intelligence agencies.
In May, Iran's intelligence minister said more than two dozen spies for the United States and Israel had been uncovered. ABC News reported that Iranian TV had broadcast what the U.S. network described as accurate video of websites used by the CIA.
A former U.S. intelligence official who worked in the region said U.S. operatives have been "battling for most of the last decade" in a shadow war with what he described as Hezbollah's extremely effective counterintelligence operatives.
Over the years, Hezbollah has proven persistent, and sometimes successful, both in spotting CIA informants within its ranks and in trying to plant its own double agents on the CIA, the former official said.
One frequent tactic used by the group, the former official said, is to send "walk-in" operatives into U.S. embassies in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean countries claiming to have information about attacks being planned against U.S. targets.
Instead of having information about real attack planning, however, the "walk-ins" use their visits to U.S. embassy buildings to gather information about embassy security measures and procedures which could then be used to plan possible attacks, according to the former official.
The US itself hasn't confirmed from its end if these were informants working with the CIA's operations in the region, but if it is true it'll make already poor relations even worse, as well as feed claims by Iran and Hezbollah of the US's 'underhanded' tactics to destabilize them from within. From comments made to the AP from certain intelligence officials, the operations in Lebanon have been particularly damaged by this.
According to this piece at Gawker though, Hezbollah apparently caught the informants during a meeting at a... Pizza Hut.
Both ABC News and the AP are out with very similar "exclusives" on the CIA's Lebanese debacle. In short, Hezbollah's counterintelligence force caught the CIA acting like amateurs. From the AP:
Using the latest commercial software, [Hezbollah's] spy-hunters unit began methodically searching for spies in Hezbollah's midst. To find them, U.S. officials said, Hezbollah 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?
Another weak spot was choice of code words. When the agency decided to cryptically refer to its secret meet-up spot as "PIZZA," that helped two Hezbollah double-agents infer that the location may have been a pizza restaurant. And it was! So Hezbollah kept an eye on a Beirut Pizza Hut, a tactic that ABC News says allowed "Hezbollah's internal security arm [to identify] at least a dozen informants, and the identities of several CIA case officers."
Important question is: What effect will (if any) it have on the military and political situation in the region?
Asheekay;5587803Important question is: What effect will (if any) it have on the military and political situation in the region?
The event on its own? Probably not much, but it'll just be another series of continuing to 'worsen' relations between them, if that was even possible. Just more things to beat each other over the head with, Iran or Hezbollah could just bring something like this up now as 'proof' of meddling on the part of the US in their internal affairs.
If what the officials telling the AP is correct though, the 'ring' in Lebanon is compromised. Which isn't good from their standpoint considering the changes in poltiics there and of course, Israel.
it just means the US will have to rely even more on Mossad for regional information.
Maybe they have multiple rings of spies. Maybe 100% of Iranians are actually CIA agents. Maybe I should take my schizo meds.
I thought Iran & US relations were already pretty bad. How much damage can this do? I'd be surprised if Iran was surprised that the US wants to know what they're up to. Things like funding militants to go to Iraq and threatening to nuke US ally Israel tend to draw attention.
Professor Dr. Scientist;5588513 I thought Iran & US relations were already pretty bad. How much damage can this do? I'd be surprised if Iran was surprised that the US wants to know what they're up to. Things like funding militants to go to Iraq and threatening to nuke US ally Israel tend to draw attention.
I don't think they were surprised to find them there. It's just embarrassing for any state involved when these things operating within another country's borders are exposed, because 'officially' they don't happen. Any more than Iran acknowledges the mess it is making in Iraq and elsewhere.
If you read how the ring was busted it was doomed to fail anyways.