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