Analysis: How serious a blow did the CIA suffer in Lebanon?



Late last month, the Central Intelligence Agency admitted that a number of its agents in Lebanon had been captured by Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group that controls large parts of the country. The group announced the arrests in the summer, but in was only on November 21 that the Associated Press confirmed the accuracy of Hezbollah’s claims from a US intelligence source. Neither Hezbollah nor the CIA have offered details of the arrests, but it is generally assumed that the captured agents were not officers of the CIA, but rather Lebanese or Iranian citizens who had been recruited as assets by CIA case officers. Regardless, the incident has undoubtedly directly impacted the Agency’s operations in Lebanon, and maybe Iran. The question is, how much? Former CIA operations officer Robert Baer, who spent several years in Lebanon in the 1980s, has penned an analysis article in Time magazine, in which he says that his sources tell him the arrests of the CIA agents represent “a serious compromise”, and that the Agency is “still trying to get to the bottom of [it]”. Baer also provides some new information about the method used by Hezbollah counterintelligence to capture the CIA agents. Last week, ABC News reported that the arrests were caused by careless spy tradecraft on behalf of the CIA. Specifically, according to ABC, “Hezbollah operatives figured out that CIA informants, who had infiltrated the Iranian proxy group, were meeting with their agency handlers at a Beirut Pizza Hut. How could Hezbollah deduce that location? The CIA used the codeword ‘PIZZA’ when discussing where to meet with the agents”. But Baer says that the arrests were not necessarily caused by CIA errors; rather it may have been advanced counterintelligence analysis by Hezbollah that compromised the agents. He claims that Hezbollah is using telephone link analysis, a type of signals intelligence testing that utilizes advanced software “capable of combing through trillions of gigabytes of phone-call data”. The aim of telephone link analysis is to search for unusual communications patterns —such as too many brief calls, or heavy reliance on prepaid cell phones that seem to become disused after only a few calls. It was this type of advanced communications analysis, says Baer, that led to the capture of the CIA agents in Beirut last summer. He adds that the arrests should serve as a reminder of Hezbollah’s increasing technological prowess, which now extends to the domains of the Internet, cellular telecommunications, and even VOIP communications, such as Skype. IntelNews regulars may remember a comment on the subject by this blog back in August of 2010, in which we noted the tremendous technological, administrative and spy tradecraft advances achieved by the Shiite militant group in recent years.

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