Current and former US officials said the CIA's operations in Lebanon have been badly damaged after Hizbullah identified and captured a number of US spies recently, reported The Associated Press.
The intelligence debacle is particularly troubling because the CIA saw it coming. And 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.
According to the AP report, CIA officials have secretly been scrambling in recent months to protect their remaining spies - foreign assets or agents working for the agency - before Hizbullah can find them.
Hizbullah's Secretary General His Eminence Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, boasted on television in June that he had rooted out at least two CIA spies who had infiltrated the ranks of Hizbullah.
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 authorized 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. Former CIA officials have said that 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.
It remains unclear whether anyone has been or will be held accountable in the wake of this counterintelligence disaster or whether the incident will affect the CIA's ability to recruit assets in Lebanon.
In response to AP's questions about what happened in Lebanon, a U.S. official said Hizbullah is recognized as a complicated enemy responsible for killing more Americans than any other terrorist group before September 2001. The agency does not underestimate the organization, the official said.
In addition, according to a report published by the Los Angeles Times, CIA officers met a series of Lebanese informants at a local Pizza Hut, allowing Hizbullah and Lebanese authorities to identify who was helping the CIA.
According to the paper, senior CIA officials have briefed congressional staffers about the breach, and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, visited Beirut recently to interview CIA officers. Committee staff members want to determine whether CIA operatives used sloppy practices that revealed sensitive sources and methods.
By one estimate, 100 "Israeli" assets were apprehended as the news made headlines across the region in 2009. Some of those suspected "Israeli" spies worked for telecommunications companies and served in the military.
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.
But whatever actions the CIA took, they were not enough. Like the "Israelis", bad tradecraft doomed these CIA assets and the agency ultimately failed to protect them, an official said. In some instances, CIA officers fell into predictable patterns when meeting their sources, the official said.
This allowed Hizbullah to identify assets and case officers and unravel at least part of the CIA's spy network in Lebanon. There was also a reluctance to share cases and some files were put in "restricted handling." The designation severely limits the number of people who know the identity of the source but also reduces the number of experts who could spot problems that might lead to their discovery, officials said.
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