WASHINGTON – Hezbollah has broken up 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 out-maneuvering rival spy agencies to fighting terrorists. In the rush for immediate results, former officers say, tradecraft has suffered.