CIA cover blown in latest spy-versus-spy with Iran

The naming of the CIA station chief in Beirut by the Shiite militant group Hezbollah is seen as part of an intensifying undercover war between the West and Iran.

Bilal Hussein/AP
In this Nov. 11 photo, Hezbollah fighters parade during a rally to mark the Hezbollah martyr day, in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon. Current and former US officials say the CIA's operations in Lebanon have been badly damaged after Hezbollah identified and captured a number of US spies recently.
Al-Manar TV via APTN/AP
This file image taken from Al-Manar TV via Associated Press Television News shows Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah speaking during a July 2 broadcast during which he defended the men indicted in the murder of a former prime minister of Lebanon.

The publication by the militant Shiite group Hezbollah of the names of the CIA station chief in Beirut and several other alleged CIA staffers is a serious blow to the US agency's ability to gather intelligence amid what appears to be an intensifying undercover war between the West and Iran, according to a former CIA officer.

“There’s obviously an espionage war going on in Iran. And to lose an asset in the middle of a war like this, I think it’s catastrophic,” says Robert Baer, a former CIA officer who operated in Lebanon in the 1980s.

Iran has been rocked in recent weeks by a series of mysterious explosions at facilities believed to be connected to the Islamic Republic's nuclear and missile production programs, raising speculation that the US and Israel are in the throes of a secret intelligence war against Iran.

A special report on Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television station on Friday listed the names of the alleged CIA station chief in Beirut, along with his predecessor and three CIA officers as well as the nicknames of five other operators.

“The CIA station in Lebanon, through a team of operating officers, executes tasks of recruitment that target all colors of the Lebanese spectrum – government employees, security and official individuals, Lebanese politicians, media people, religious people, social people, bankers, medics, and academics,” Al-Manar said in a report that used cartoons and graphics.

CIA shutdown

The television report added weight to recent revelations that the CIA was forced to abandon its Lebanon operations after Hezbollah discovered the identity of several spies. In June, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, revealed that at least two members of his organization had been discovered working for the CIA and were arrested.

Nawar Sahili, a Hezbollah MP, said Tuesday that the intelligence war with Israel and the US was ongoing. “We have our tools and we are watching their movements,” he said, adding that Hezbollah would have further revelations to make on the issue.

Baer, who has written three books based on his experiences with the CIA as well as a novel, said that the agency would have to undergo a thorough damage assessment exercise before it could consider resuming intelligence-gathering operations in Lebanon.

"With a damage assessment, traditionally you just have to close down and figure out why [it happened] and what else is compromised," he says. "They also have to consider that the embassy or wherever they were operating from is compromised. It's a laborious, time-consuming thing that can take years. You've got to pull everybody out and put new people under cover and get them to learn Arabic."

Archive footage of Baer being interviewed by a Lebanese television station about his former clandestine activities in Beirut was included as background in Al-Manar’s expose of the CIA’s current Lebanon operations.

Hezbollah has a strong and aggressive counter-intelligence department that apparently has access to sophisticated monitoring and surveillance equipment to track down enemy agents. In the past three years, more than 100 people in Lebanon have been arrested on suspicion of spying for Israel. They have ranged from garage mechanics to a retired general in the Lebanese army.

US equipment used?

While there have been no serious overt acts of violence along the traditionally volatile border between Lebanon and Israel since the month-long conflict of 2006, the two enemies are engaged in a secret intelligence war using highly sophisticated equipment. Last week, Hezbollah technicians discovered an elaborate Israeli tapping device hooked into the group’s private fiber-optic communications network in south Lebanon. The device was destroyed in a remote-control explosion by the Israelis shortly after its discovery.

Hezbollah is believed to have uncovered the CIA network through the process of telephone co-location which analyzes millions of phone calls made in Lebanon every day to discern patterns. Ironically, the equipment used by Hezbollah to roll up the CIA network is thought to have been originally provided by the US to help the Lebanese government trace the assassins of Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister who was assassinated in a truck bomb explosion in 2005, according to Baer and Lebanese press reports. In June, an international tribunal indicted four members of Hezbollah for their alleged role in Mr. Hariri’s assassination.

Baer said that the CIA had grown weak on tradecraft and in cultivating human intelligence resources over the past decade, which had resulted in costly mistakes being made in Lebanon.

“The problem is that they have spent the past 10 years living in pods in Iraq and Afghanistan where they’re up against an enemy not nearly as sophisticated as Hezbollah,” he said.

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