CIA spy ring busted in Iran and Lebanon
A CIA-led program in the Middle East is up in the air after officials confirmed to news organizations today that paid informants in Iran and Lebanon working for the US government have disappeared while attempting to infiltrate Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed military organization considered a terrorist group by the US.
Iranian intelligence minister Heidar Mosleh announced in May that more than 30 US and Israeli spies had been discovered and he quickly took to Iranian television to broadcast information explaining the methods of online communication that the agents would use to trade intel. Only a month later, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah announced that two high-ranking officers within his own organization had been identified as CIA spies. Just now, however, does the US government confirm that not only is this information true, but they believe that the rest of their Hezbollah-targeted operations in the Middle East have been compromised.
According to some within the agency, all of this could have been prevented.
Speaking to ABC News, one former US senior intelligence official speaking without accreditation says that CIA agents were warned to avoid using the same Lebanon hub for secret meet-ups — a Beirut Pizza Hut restaurant — though spies continue to use the location for countless meet-ups with a wide range of informants.
"We were lazy and the CIA is now flying blind against Hezbollah," the former official tells ABC.
According to several US officials speaking to the press, the CIA used the codeword “PIZZA” to arrange for would-be clandestine meetings at the restaurant. To ABC, however, a current CIA officer denied the allegations that the entire operations evaporated at the eatery
Others within the agency, but currently and formerly, say that outside of the Pizza Hut sting, the revealing of the online communication conducted between the CIA and informants in Iran led to “dozens” of assets being compromised. Officials have confirmed that the websites that Intel Ministero Mosleh showed an Iranian television audience were indeed used by the CIA in their secret web chats.
"We've lost the tradition of espionage," one former intelligence official tells ABC. "Officers take short cuts and no one is held accountable.”
Another anonymous official tells the Associated Press that the CIA was warned by Hezbollah’s Nasrallah that they were cracking down on American spies, but the US pressed on despite the consequences.
Prior to the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Hezbollah organization was believed to be responsible for the most terrorism-related deaths of Americans ever. Last year the State Department described the militants as "the most technically capable terrorist group in the world” and a government probe linked the group to hundreds of millions of dollars in funding out of Iran. A 2009 crackdown by Hezbollah aimed at Israeli spies led to the arrest of roughly 100, and a CIA investigation that followed revealed that the United States’ own agents would be just as susceptible to similar strikes.
While the fate of the CIA agents remains uncertain — and the final toll kept under wraps — what is known is that for the American intelligence community, not much good can come from this.
"Hezbollah has disappeared people before. Others they have kept around,” counterterrorism expert Matthew Levitt tells the AP.
"If they were genuine spies, spying against Hezbollah, I don't think we'll ever see them again," former CIA officer Robert Baer tells ABC. "These guys are very, very vicious and unforgiving."