Intelligence Blunder in Beirut?


body-of-lies01.jpgMy Atlantic colleague Max Fisher has posted a terrific piece thinking through how America's intelligence operation may have tilted too much towards terrorist killing rather than terror network penetration. 

Fisher builds on the Los Angeles Times' Ken Dilanian's important revelations about the roll up of one of America's legendary spy operation centers.  One US source told Dilanian:  "Beirut Station is out of business."

The fact that Hezbollah may have tracked informants who met with CIA operatives at a pizza joint after the CIA used the codeword "PIZZA" to signal the place to meet sounds eerily similar to a CIA clerk accidentally issuing a "readable" electronic communication that listed most or all of America's intelligence assets inside Iran.  Of course, according to the Pulitzer Prize New York Times writer James Risen who disclosed this CIA mistake in his book State of War, Iran rolled up that network -- much like Hezbollah will roll up (i.e., kill) all those who were compromised by this alleged "pizza" spycraft mistake.

The only caveat that I would humbly add to this coverage and to these assessments -- both of what Risen reports happened in Iran and the latest revelations about blunders in Beirut -- is that intelligence is a very complicated game. 

Seeing things on the surface -- earnestly, in straight lines, in ones and zeros -- could very well be a distraction from other operations or realities.  Knowing something about the intelligence field and just thinking through possibilities, I can't help but wonder if these informants were blown to give Nasrallah and Hezbollah a false sense of security and accomplishment.  Perhaps there are others on the inside -- and these recent revelations were designed to make Hezbollah think that the CIA was incompetent. 

I have no idea whether my speculation has merit in this particular case but do know of other cases in which similar methods and distractions were set up.

Ali Larijani, Iran's former nuclear negotiator and now Chairman of the Iranian Parliament, once told me "You Americans play baseball, we play chess."

I think he's wrong.  The fact is, Americans play virtually every kind of game -- and as much as I think it's highly possible that we bungled our spy operation in Beirut, part of me thinks that this could be frosting on something else.

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Steve Clemons is Washington editor at large for The Atlantic and editor of Atlantic Live. He writes frequently about politics and foreign affairs. More

Clemons is a senior fellow and the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C., where he previously served as executive vice president. He writes and speaks frequently about the D.C. political scene, foreign policy, and national security issues, as well as domestic and global economic-policy challenges.

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