The recent setback for the U.S. Intelligence Community – specifically CIA – wherein scores of operators working for the Agency were seized by Iranian security forces in Iran and Hezbollah (Iran’s proxy army) in Lebanon; speak to two disturbing truths. The first is that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah, which is both financially and operationally supported by the IRGC, maintains human intelligence and counterintelligence capabilities that are as “formidable” as any fielded by the West. Secondly, they are aggressively operating against us.
According to Reuters, former CIA operations officer Bob Baer says,"Hezbollah’s security is as good as any in the world's. It's the best. It's better than that of the KGB [the former Soviet spy agency]."
And at least one expert refers to Iran and Hezbollah’s aggressive counterintelligence operations and recent success as bordering on war.
Professor Walid Phares – an advisor to the U.S. House’s Anti-Terrorism Caucus and the author of several books on Jihadist terror (including Future Jihad: Terrorist Strategies against America), tells us, "This latest operation by Hezbollah’s against a major U.S. intelligence agency is bordering on an act of war. Lebanon is a sovereign country, and a terrorist organization has had the freedom to wage counter-espionage operations against CIA, and they have detained individuals they believe were working with that U.S. agency. If the Lebanese government endorses this operation, it would be responsible for an act of aggression bordering on an act of war against the United States.”
Phares adds, “If the Lebanese government considers such operations against a U.S. agency on Lebanese soil as rogue – and conducted without legitimate Lebanese government authority – then it should demand Hezbollah cease its activities against the U.S.” He says, the Lebanese government – which receives military support from the U.S. – may raise the matter of U.S. espionage operations in Lebanon in bilateral discussions with the U.S. government. But Hezbollah has no legal authority to conduct such counter-espionage operations against what is considered to be an ally of Lebanon.
Congresswoman Sue Myrick (R-NC) – who chairs the U.S. House Intelligence Subcommittee on Terrorism, Human Intelligence, Analysis and Counter Intelligence – says both the immediate issue and the threat extends far beyond Iran and Lebanon.
Wednesday, she said, "This operation alleged by Hezbollah against CIA resources in Lebanon shows their determination to hurt the United States. This terrorist organization claims their war efforts are only pursued in their war against Israel. But their heavy involvement in terror operations against American interests in Iraq and the Gulf area, and in Latin America all the way to Mexico south of our borders, shows clearly that they are targeting U.S. national security.”
Recall that my colleagues and I have discussed at length the tri-border area of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay that has – according to a 2009 study by the Rand Institute – “emerged as the most important financing center for Islamic terrorism outside of the Middle East.”
Myrick says, “This latest claim by Hezbollah in Lebanon only adds to their intentions to target U.S. interests." But it is the effective penetration of a U.S. intelligence agency by Iran and Hezbollah that disturbs most.
“The reality is someone who knew of these names must have leaked them to the organization [Hezbollah],” says Phares. “That person or persons is either a member of Hezbollah or they are working with the terrorist group. The U.S. Congress should investigate the possible penetration Hezbollah may have developed over the years enabling it to have these kinds of access to names.”
Clare Lopez, deputy director of the U.S. Counterterrorism Advisory Team, says, “Up against Hezbollah on its own turf, it seems that U.S. intelligence is out of its league. Hezbollah's intelligence capabilities, learned from the Iranians, are highly sophisticated and include the full classical tradecraft skillset as well as very competent counterintelligence capabilities.”
A former member of the U.S. Intelligence Community who spoke to us on condition of anonymity, says, “This should come as no surprise to anyone who understands the sophistication of these jihadist enemies and their professionalism in the skills of classical clandestine tradecraft. U.S. Intelligence Community failures to identify, effectively confront, and defeat the Islamic jihadist enemy speak not only to erosion of that skillset within the CIA, but also to catastrophic failure to master an understanding of the enemy ideology, the ideology of Islamic jihad.”
The former operator added, “Intent and motivation are as critical as capability to the enemy's strategy and absent their accurate assessment, will lead as surely to defeat as failure to measure capability. America's enemies have penetrated its Intelligence Community in the past and betrayal of top CIA assets abroad has been tracked to moles deep inside the system more than once.”
How this plays out is anyone’s guess for the near future. But what we cannot continue to neglect are the overt threats and activities of Iran and Hezbollah, the developing sophistication of their covert capabilities, their global reach and obvious intent, and the fact that – as former Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff says - Hezbollah "makes Al Qaeda look like a minor league team."