CIA suffers in Lebanon after spies outed
Washington - The CIA's operations in Lebanon have been badly damaged after Hezbollah 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.
Hezbollah's long time leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, boasted on television in June that he had rooted out at least two CIA spies who had infiltrated the ranks of Hezbollah, which the US considers a terrorist group closely allied with Iran.
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.
In recent months, CIA officials have secretly been scrambling to protect their remaining spies - foreign assets or agents working for the agency - before Hezbollah can find them.
Bomber posed at informant
The damage to the agency's spy network in Lebanon has been greater than usual, several former and current US officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak publicly about security matters.
The Lebanon crisis is the latest mishap involving CIA counterintelligence, the undermining or manipulating of the enemy's ability to gather information.
The most recent high-profile example was the suicide bomber who posed as an informant and killed seven CIA employees and wounded six others in Khost, Afghanistan in December 2009.
Last year, then-CIA director Leon Panetta said the agency had to maintain "a greater awareness of counter-intelligence".
But eight months later, Nasrallah let the world know he had bested the CIA, demonstrating that the agency still struggles with this critical aspect of spying and sending a message to those who would betray Hezbollah.
The CIA was well aware the spies were vulnerable in Lebanon. CIA officials were warned, including the chief of the unit that supervises Hezbollah operations from CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and the head of counter-intelligence.
In response to AP's questions about what happened in Lebanon, a US official said Hezbollah is recognised as a complicated enemy responsible for killing more Americans than any other terrorist group before September 2001.
The CIA's toughest adversaries, like Hezbollah and Iran, have for years been improving their ability to hunt spies, relying on patience and guile to exploit counterintelligence holes.
The State Department last year described Hezbollah as "the most technically capable terrorist group in the world," and the Defence Department estimates it receives between $100m and $200m per year in funding from Iran.
Using the latest commercial software, Nasrallah's spy-hunters unit began methodically searching for spies in Hezbollah's midst.
To find them, US 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.
CIA studied vulnerabilities
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 Hezbollah, and later the Lebanese government, began making arrests.
Back at CIA headquarters, the arrests alarmed senior 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.
"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.
Who's responsible for the mess in Lebanon? It's not clear. The chief of Hezbollah operations at CIA headquarters continues to run the unit that also focuses on Iranians and Palestinians.