CIA Outsmarted by Hezbollah: Is This the Cost of Counterterrorism?

Since 2001, the U.S. spy agency has been retooled to fight terror, but what has it lost?

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A 1990 Hezbollah rally in Beirut / AP

The Lebanese militant group Hezbollah has unraveled much of the CIA's mission in Lebanon, capturing up to a dozen U.S. spies in the country and effectively shutting down the agency's crucial operations there. "Beirut station is out of business," a source told the Los Angeles Times today. The incident is a major blow to the CIA and to U.S. intelligence. The agency's posting in Lebanon has for decades been one of its most aggressive, most highly valued, and, for its staff, most prestigious. Though the CIA base there aggressively tracks Hezbollah, it is also a headquarters for monitoring and often countering Syria and Iran.

How was the CIA outmaneuvered by one of its oldest foes in one of its proudest outposts? CIA sources that spoke to the Associated Press, which broke the story along with the L.A. Times, seem not to fear a strengthening Hezbollah or even to blame the agency's White House overseers, as spy officials often do, but rather cite a changing culture in the CIA itself. The old CIA mission of counterintelligence, of spy-versus-spy, has taken a back seat to the new emphasis on killing terrorists, they seem to worry, and the agency has suffered as a result.

The Lebanon crisis is the latest mishap involving CIA counterintelligence, the undermining or manipulating of the enemy's ability to gather information. Former CIA officials have said that once-essential skill has been eroded as the agency shifted from outmaneuvering rival spy agencies to fighting terrorists. In the rush for immediate results, former officers say, tradecraft has suffered.

The most recent high-profile example was the suicide bomber who posed as an informant and killed seven CIA employees and wounded six others in Khost, Afghanistan in December 2009.

The Khost incident, which was devastating to the CIA, neatly encapsulates how the world's premier spy agency managed to lose so much of its spy skills. Since September 2001, the agency's mission has been less and less about subterfuge and intelligence-gathering but more and more about killing terrorists. In its growing emphasis on finding targets over finding information, it over-exposed itself to the double-agent at Khost. This year, as it was ramping up drone strikes in Pakistan, paramilitary operations in Somalia, and targeted killings in Yemen, it seems to have lost some of its once-prized focus on outwitting such hostile agencies as Hezbollah's "spy combat unit."

The CIA first began to take a more aggressive posture during the Cold War, when presidents from Kennedy to Reagan used it to arm and train anti-Soviet opposition groups. But even then it remained mostly in the shadows, attempting to manipulate world events in the U.S.'s favor. And its primary tools -- back channels, foreign assets, secret bank accounts, and misinformation -- remained the same, even as the mission evolved. It was not until September 2001, when the U.S. quickly and dramatically changed its national security focus to terrorism, that the CIA began its slow transformation from a spy agency into something that at times more closely resembles a paramilitary organization.

How much has the CIA changed since 2001? In the late 1990s, senior officials in the Clinton administration debated endlessly over whether the CIA could legally be granted the authority to kill Osama bin Laden; the agency had been banned from assassinations since 1976, following revelations that it had tried to kill Fidel Castro a decade earlier. Even the idea of a direct presidential order to kill the world's most dangerous terrorist, a man who had already blown up two U.S. embassies, was considered controversial and outside the CIA's normal realm. Yet in the first 20 months of the Obama administration, the CIA's drone program in Pakistan alone killed over 800 people. It runs or helps run drone programs and special operations in several countries and even operates detention centers. Under Obama, the CIA and Pentagon have borrowed one another's methods in Afghanistan and Iraq (not to mention one another's leadership) so regularly that the line between U.S. intelligence and the U.S. military has blurred in unprecedented ways.

The change has also been political. In the days immediately after September 11, 2001, the Bush administration decided to put the agency on a much tighter leash, using something it called Top Secret Codeword/Threat Matrix. Intelligence reports were fed directly to the White House, which announced it would begin more directly controlling CIA activities. "The mistake was not to have proper analysis of the intelligence before giving it to the president," National Security Council member Roger Cressey told New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer for her Pulitzer-winning book on U.S. national security policy after September 2001, The Dark Side. "There was no filter. Most of it was garbage. None of it had been corroborated or screened. But it went directly to the president and his advisers, who are not intelligence experts. That's when mistakes got made."

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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