The militant group Hezbollah has revealed the identities of CIA officers working undercover in Lebanon, a blow to agency operations in the region and the latest salvo in an escalating spy war.
Hezbollah made the names public in a broadcast Friday night on a Lebanese television station, al-Manar. The station used animated videos simulating meetings purported to have taken place between CIA officers and paid informants at Starbucks and Pizza Hut.
So how did Hezbollah crack the identities of these covert operatives? Just like right out of an old Cold War movie – they ran a double agent against the CIA according to former and current U.S. intelligence officials who wished to remain anonymous.
In June, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah bragged that his group had identified at least two spies working for the CIA. It is not clear whether one of those spies was, in fact, the same double agent working for Hezbollah, which is considered a terrorist group by the U.S. It is reported that Nasrallah has referred to the U.S. Embassy in Beirut as a “den of spies.”
This blunder occurred despite top CIA officials being warned to be extra careful when handling informants after Hezbollah and Lebanese officials arrested scores of Israeli spies in 2009. It isn’t easy sorting out the good spies from the bad spies.
The outing of the officers is particularly damaging because it will hinder the ability of these CIA employees to work overseas again — especially in the Internet age where references to their names will be widely available to other foreign intelligence agencies. Recruiting and training new spies takes some time.
Now, it’s possible none of this is true. The CIA dismissed Hezbollah’s assertions. “The agency does not, as a rule, address spurious claims from terrorist groups,” CIA spokeswoman Jennifer Youngblood said. “I think it’s worth remembering that Hezbollah is a dangerous organization, with al-Manar as its propaganda arm. That fact alone should cast some doubt on the credibility of the group’s claims.” Good point, still, it makes you wonder. One would expect such a public statement from the CIA denying these allegations.
Former officials said one of the named officers was considered a rising star at the CIA and had been involved in many important operations in Iraq. Whether or not this employee would be able to continue a CIA career outside the U.S. is unknown. Former officials said it is likely Hezbollah has already shared photographs of the case officers with Iran, its closest ally.
It was not immediately clear whether the exposed CIA officers in Lebanon have been pulled out of the country. The Associated Press is not publishing the names of the officers because they could refer to operatives who remain undercover. Now that’s responsible “non-reporting” by the AP – unlike the reporters and news stations that leaked the names of the operatives who killed Osama Bin Laden just to get a story.
Revealing the identities of CIA officers has happened in other cases. A recent incident occurred about one year ago when the name of the CIA’s Pakistan station chief was leaked to reporters there. The CIA initially let him stay but eventually decided it was too dangerous for him to remain in the country.
Case officers did get a bit sloppy by meeting with informants at locations more than once, a practice frowned upon because it risks their exposure.
The disclosure indicates that Hezbollah is sending a sharp message to the CIA to stay out of Lebanon, suggesting that it could have captured the CIA officers at any time since it knew their identities. In 1984, Hezbollah kidnapped the CIA station chief in Beirut. He was tortured and later killed.
Al-Manar said the CIA team in Lebanon consisted of ten officers and all used diplomat cover. The station said their jobs were to oversee intelligence networks in Lebanon.
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