BEIRUT: The collapse of CIA operations in Lebanon following Hezbollah’s unmasking of several CIA spies and the recent naming of the agency’s station chief is a serious blow to the U.S.’ability to gather intelligence amid what appears to be an intensifying covert war between the West and Iran, says 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 U.S. and Israel are in the throes of a secret intelligence war against Iran.
A special report on Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television station 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.
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, Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah revealed that at least two members of the party had been discovered working for the CIA and were arrested.
Baer operated in Lebanon in the mid-1980s when one of his tasks was to try and trace the whereabouts of Imad Mughnieh, Hezbollah’s former military commander who was killed in a car bomb blast in February 2008.
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.
He 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 told The Daily Star in a telephone interview. “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 got to pull everybody out and put new people under cover and get them to learn Arabic.”
While there have been no serious overt acts of violence along the Blue Line since the month-long conflict of 2006, both Hezbollah and Israel are engaged in a secret intelligence war using highly sophisticated equipment to track each other. Last week, Hezbollah technicians discovered between Srifa and Deir Kifa 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. It apparently was identical to another Israeli tapping device uncovered by Hezbollah near Houla in October 2009.
Baer said he believed that Hezbollah identified the CIA network through the process of telephone co-location which analyzes millions of phone calls made in Lebanon each day to discern patterns.
“My understanding is it was based on telephone link analysis,” he said. “The only way that Hezbollah could truly link all these people together is by telephone. I mean, the chances of Hezbollah having someone inside the [CIA] station is zero. The chances of them getting into the [CIA’s] encrypted communications is zero ... Then it’s just a matter of putting surveillance on people and turning up at meetings and tracking the cellphones. That’s the explanation I have heard and it’s the most reasonable.”
Ironically, the U.S. is thought to have provided the equipment to Lebanon originally to help government investigators trace the assassins of Rafik Hariri.
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. “Hunting bin Laden from a drone in the tribal areas [of Pakistan] is not classical espionage and you pay the price for it ... The CIA has been turned into an arm of the Pentagon.”