Washington: Hezbollah has partially unraveled the CIA`s spy network in Lebanon, severely damaging the intelligence agency`s ability to gather vital information on the terrorist organization at a tense time in the region, former and current US officials said.
Officials said several foreign spies working for the CIA had been captured by Hezbollah in recent months. The blow to the CIA`s operations in Lebanon came after top agency managers were alerted last year to be especially careful handling informants in the Middle East country.
Hezbollah`s longtime leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, boasted in June on television he had unmasked at least two CIA spies who had infiltrated the ranks of the organization, which the US considers a terrorist group closely allied with Iran.
Though the US Embassy in Lebanon officially denied the accusation, American officials concede that Nasrallah was not lying and the damage spread like a virus as Hezbollah methodically picked off the CIA`s informants.
To be sure, some deaths are to be expected in these shadowy spy wars. It`s an extremely risky business and people get killed. But the damage to the agency`s network in Lebanon has been greater than usual, several former and current US officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about security matters.
The Lebanon crisis is the latest mishap involving CIA counterintelligence, defined as the undermining or manipulating of the enemy`s ability to gather information. Former CIA officials have said the once-essential skill has been eroded as the agency shifted from outmaneuvering rival spy agencies to fighting terrorists. In the rush for immediate results, former officers say, tradecraft has suffered.
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 counterintelligence." 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.
It remains unclear whether anyone has been or will be held responsible in the wake of this counterintelligence disaster or whether the incident will affect the CIA`s ability to recruit assets in Lebanon.
CIA officials were warned their spies in Lebanon were vulnerable. Those told include the chief of the unit that supervises Hezbollah operations from CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., and the head of counterintelligence.
Former and current intelligence officials are waiting to see how CIA Director David Petreaus, who took the helm in September, will handle this fiasco. While in the military, the retired four-star developed a reputation for exacting standards and holding people accountable.
"Gen Petraeus will definitely take care of the failings of his organization. He will deal with it head on and not try to bury it under the carpet,`` said retired Army Col. Peter Mansoor, the general`s former executive officer in Iraq.
In response to AP`s questions about what happened in Lebanon, a U.S. official said Hezbollah is a complicated enemy, responsible for killing more Americans than any other terrorist group before September 2001. The agency did not underestimate the organization, the official said.
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.
In 2007, for instance, when Ali-Reza Asgari, a brigadier general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps of Iran, disappeared in Turkey, it was assumed that he was either killed or defected. In response, the Iranian government began a painstaking review of foreign travel by its citizens, particularly to places like Turkey where Iranians don`t need a visa and could meet with foreign intelligence services.