Spy Networks in trouble : Lebanon
Something really bad went down in Beirut and the only way that we know about it is that the press got a hold of it before the CIA could sink the story... that, and Hezbollah made cartoons of the events and showed them on national television.
“The assertion that CIA activities in Beirut are shut down is nonsense,”
- Anonymous US government source
"If they were genuine spies, spying against Hezbollah, I don't think we'll ever see them again. These guys are very, very vicious and unforgiving."
- Robert Baer, former senior CIA officer
Sometimes, due to a catastrophic security problem such as high-level treason or a lapse in tradecraft, intelligence networks are exposed to the enemy and must make themselves disappear from a target country's intelligence service's radar. Since everything sounds classier in Latin, let's just say that what resulted from this sad state of affairs in Lebanon in 2011 was a real Pedicabo in botro.
The Pedicabo in botro.
Two Hezbollah “dangles”, infiltrated the CIA, pretending to become assets. Control officers began rendezvousing with them, using fast food outlets as meeting places. The double agents then reported back to their Hezbollah control officers.
Hezbollah then began rounding up US informants and most if not all of whom were probably never to be seen again. Then, the Iranian backed Islamic terrorist organization broadcast the names of ten CIA agents working out of the US embassy on Al Manar television station, which is Hezbollah’s own television channel, going so far to manufacture little animations of the traitors meeting with US spies at fast-food outlets in Beirut,
Meanwhile, by some kind of miracle, Iranian intel services discovered a secret Internet communication method through websites that Iranian assets used to communicate with their CIA handlers. One wonders how they found that out...
A lot of valuable assets died, and the CIA's intelligence network in Beirut was destroyed.
How to build a spy network
The acronym for this is MICE.
An intelligence organization will look for people who are already in place, in or near sensitive jobs, and susceptible to having one of four motivations to spy. (you may be interested in our WHY SPY? article).
Money : Opposing intel services take a close look at the finances of a desirable prospect, just in case his financial situation is so bad that he could be turned for money. Intel services also scrutinize their own personnel’s expenses.
Ideology : Most of the infamous Cambridge Five and the Rosenbergs believed in communism to the point of spying for the Soviets.
Compromise / Coercion: Everybody has a skeleton in the closet. Enemy spy services will easily dig up dirt on persons of interest or politicians. The possibility of blackmail ensues.
Ego : A missed promotions, a beastly boss invite the enemy to mount a honeypot operation to turn a frustrated person in a sensitive job into an asset.
All four are used by intelligence agencies when building a network. There is a school of thought arguing that sex should be added, resulting in the acronym SMICE.
Covert inquiries, equally covert meetings, evaluations, analysis, reports; it can take many years, a lot of cajoling, a lot of shoe rubber to build a proper spy network, and this enterprise is always fraught with danger.
How to destroy a spy network
"If you lose an asset, one source, that's normally a setback in espionage. But when you lose your entire station, either in Tehran or Beirut, that's a catastrophe, that just shouldn't be. And the only way that ever happens is when you're mishandling sources." - Robert Baer, former senior CIA officer
"We've lost the tradition of espionage... Officers take short cuts and no one is held accountable".
- A former U.S. intelligence official
Hezbollah, or for that matter any opposition, should never as a general rule be underestimated. Unfortunately, in this case, it's rather painfully obvious that complacency leading to sloppy tradecraft were at fault. It seems that the 1983 US embassy bombing that killed three, the bombing of the Marine barracks the same year that killed 241, and the 1985 kidnapping and murder of the Beirut CIA station chief William Frances Buckley, were all but forgotten.
How did they manage to ignore all this and also the fact that, when these events took place, Hezbollah had reportedly tallied up the highest count of murdered Americans, higher even than Al Qaeda?
Flush with money from Iran (estimated at $100 to $200 million a year), Hezbollah is technically very advanced. Moreover, their forces are almost as numerous as the Lebanese army and police force put together. With the help of their double agents and their friends working in the Lebanese telecommunications industry, they were quick to realize that the CIA met with a lot of their assets in fast food outlets, prominently in a Beirut Pizza Hut imaginatively code-named (you guessed it!) PIZZA. They also met at Starbucks, most probably code-named COFFEE. Why not?
But it gets worse.
The terrorists then figured out who their targets were calling and when they called them, and started triangulating everyone's position. Also, Hezbollah could listen in on their targets' conversations through their cell phones even if those phones were turned off. They then picked up, not only the CIA assets but most everyone those assets knew.
Some estimates tell us that ten agents were thus disappeared, while others also take into account the more than thirty American and Israeli agents that were reportedly burned in Iran.
And while Hezbollah was busy disappearing, interrogating and killing their agents, it is said that the CIA ignored all warnings and kept right on meeting their remaining agents at PIZZA.
That's about as worse as it gets.
"Beirut station is out of business," said an anonymous source, adding that about a dozen CIA assets were compromised. Of course, officials disputed that number, but key operations still had to be suspended.
This is significant because Beirut can be seen somewhat like WWII Casablanca in the celebrated movie of the same name: a hub of covert information gathering and a regional thermometer. It can safely be said that the CIA was suddenly flying mostly blind in the region.
Another parallel between the events in Beirut and the movie Casablanca is that almost everything that sources told the press was then strongly, almost ritually disputed by U.S. officials, just as it is said that Bogie's character never really uttered the sentence “Play it again, Sam” in the movie. And he didn't.
There was an inquiry by the House Intelligence Committee. There also was a very interesting analysis of Hezbollah that is linked to here in the references section (PDF).
Another way to say 'Tradecraft' would be 'How to not get caught.' Well, Beirut station got caught.
And then, in spite of everything, Beirut station was rebuilt.
H. Keith Melton (2009), Ultimate Spy, Inside the Secret World of Espionage, DK, ISBN 978-0-7566-5576-1