WASHINGTON — IN its heyday in Beirut, the CIA counted among its assets an array of Lebanese politicians and generals, dozens of agents from other Muslim countries, and a handful of highly placed Palestinian guerrillas. But over the past 10 years, United States intelligence capabilities in Lebanon have eroded to the extent that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) cannot pinpoint the location of the eight American hostages that remain there after the reported killing of Marine Lt. Col. William Higgins.
The problem is partly the legacy of a string of disasters that has hounded CIA operations in Lebanon, and also the result of the clannish nature and zeal of the Shiite Muslim kidnappers, officials and experts say.
``We don't have adequate information on where they live, operate, train,'' says Robert McFarlane, the former national security adviser who helped plan the White House scheme to free the hostages by selling weapons to Iran in 1985-86.
Under ideal conditions, he says, the CIA would recruit native Lebanese or Americans of Lebanese origin to infiltrate the hostage-takers and report on their activities.
But Hizbullah, the umbrella group under whose auspices the captors are believed to operate, defies penetration, says Sen. David Boren (D) of Oklahoma, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. ``These little cells, these units, are like organized-crime families,'' Senator Boren says. ``Strangers are easily spotted, even if they're Lebanese.''
Also, it is difficult to protect Lebanese who aid the CIA. Soon after the agency's Beirut station chief, William Buckley, was kidnapped in 1984, some of the CIA's Lebanese agents were murdered or disappeared, according to David Martin and John Walcott, coauthors of a book on US efforts to fight terrorism.
On April 18, 1983, a car-bomb explosion demolished much of the US Embassy in Beirut. Mr. Martin and Mr. Walcott say the blast wiped out all but two of the agency's Beirut staff.