WASHINGTON -- Hezbollah has partly unraveled the CIA's spy network in Lebanon, severely damaging the intelligence agency's ability to gather vital information on the terrorist organization at a tense time in the region, former and current U.S. officials said.
They said several foreign spies working for the CIA had been captured by Hezbollah in recent months. The blow to the CIA's operations in Lebanon came after top agency managers were alerted last year to be especially careful handling informants in that country.
Hezbollah's longtime leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, boasted in June on television he had unmasked at least two CIA spies who had infiltrated the ranks of Hezbollah, which the United States considers a terrorist group allied with Iran.
The U.S. Embassy in Lebanon officially denied the accusation, but American officials concede that Nasrallah wasn't lying and the damage spread like a virus as Hezbollah methodically picked off informants. Some deaths are to be expected in these shadowy spy wars. It's a risky business and people get killed. But the damage to the agency's network in Lebanon has been greater than usual, several former and current U.S. officials said. The Lebanon crisis is the latest mishap involving CIA counterintelligence, defined as the undermining or manipulating of the enemy's ability to gather information.
Former CIA officials have said the 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 in Khost, Afghanistan, in December 2009. Last year, then-CIA director Leon Panetta said the agency had to maintain "a greater awareness of counterintelligence." But eight months later, Nasrallah let the world know he had bested the CIA.
It remains unclear whether anyone has been or will be held responsible for this counterintelligence disaster or whether it will affect the CIA's ability to recruit assets in Lebanon.
Former and current intelligence officials are waiting to see how CIA Director David Petre-aus, who took the helm in September, will handle the situation.