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 U.S. officials said.No doubt Iran has been heavily involved in Hezbollah's anti-espionage efforts. Even so, there have been stunning failures in both Israeli and US intelligence in Lebanon.
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 U.S. considers a terrorist group closely allied with Iran.
Though the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon officially denied the accusation, American officials concede that Nasrallah wasn't lying and the damage spread like a virus as Hezbollah methodically picked off the CIA's informants.
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.
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.
The State Department last year described Hezbollah as "the most technically capable terrorist group in the world," and the Defense Department estimates it receives between $100 million and $200 million per year in funding from Iran.
Backed by Iran, Hezbollah has built a professional counterintelligence apparatus that Nasrallah — whom the U.S. government designated an international terrorist a decade ago — proudly describes as the "spy combat unit." U.S. intelligence officials believe the unit, which is considered formidable and ruthless, went operational around 2004.
Using the latest commercial software, Nasrallah's spy-hunters unit began methodically searching for traitors 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?
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