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

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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."

That's also when the White House began pushing the CIA in a way that encouraged it to put less emphasis on its long-term information-collection and counterintelligence efforts, slow-boil missions that might takes years or more to yield results and that might be more about detecting future threats than combating existing ones. The White House's new urgency about terrorism and al-Qaeda placed far greater pressure on the CIA to deliver immediate results on known threats. First that meant tracking terrorists, then capturing and "interrogating" them, and within a few years it meant killing them outright. That urgency and pressure has been sustained for over a decade now. Judging by Hezbollah's recent victory over the CIA in Lebanon, which appears to have grown somewhat sloppy in its spycraft, some of the patience from the old days was lost.

While some in the CIA have zealously embraced the new mission, some have not, speaking out (though always anonymously) to the press. Ultimately, the CIA is guided by the White House and its prevailing assessment of what threatens the nation and how to fight back. In the 1980s, the CIA was so consumed by the Reagan administration's anti-Soviet fervor that in funneled millions of dollars to mujaheddin fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan without sufficiently considering whether its actions would increase other threats. The agency was so focused on bleeding the Soviets that, while the mission succeeded, it helped fuel a generation of militants who are still fighting against the U.S. around the world. A similar sense of myopia appears to have returned to CIA policy since September 2001, with the agency and its White House overseers so obsessed with fighting terrorism that other skills go underdeveloped and other threats under-addressed.

As in the Cold War, unity of purpose has made the CIA incredibly effective at its central task: al-Qaeda's "central" organization in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been decimated, its Yemen-based branch severely curtailed, and its efforts at expansion left struggling. But as Andrew Exum wrote in response to the story, "It's great to have an intelligence agency with a knife in its teeth, but the primary mission of an intelligence organization is to gather and analyze intelligence, not to thwack bad guys."

It's not clear if the CIA's "primary mission" has changed as a result of deliberate, top-down decision-making, or if it was simply a slow but inexorable process of mission creep. As the CIA has gotten better at killing, it appears to have simultaneously become worse at spying. Maybe that's the path that the CIA had to take, with instability-fueled insurgencies increasingly able, willing, and interested in attacking U.S. assets and even civilians. But this changing focus will necessarily leave it, and the U.S., more vulnerable to the non-terrorism threats that the CIA traditionally battles: rogue states, rising powers, and violent but shrewd organizations such as Hezbollah.

Maybe the CIA can continue to handle both its old missions as well as its new, more aggressive tasks. But the agency's embarrassment in Lebanon suggests that it has emphasized paramilitary-style counterterrorism at the expense of spycraft. And while al-Qaeda has certainly posed a significant threat to the U.S., the terrorist group's power is eroding. Meanwhile, the U.S. still has to live in a world with dangerous rogue states such as Iran and North Korea, semi-hostile foreign intelligence services such as Russia's and China's, and anti-American groups from Hezbollah to the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence to Mexican drug cartels. At some point, the CIA -- and the White House -- will have to decide whether al-Qaeda and related groups really outweigh all of those threats.

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

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