Trouble for the CIA in Lebanon

Stories are circulating today trying to explain why CIA assets in Lebanon may have been rolled up by Hezbollah. The stories, if true, point to lazy tradecraft by CIA officers who were tasked with spying on the Iran-backed terrorist group. Even worse is that CIA officers working in Lebanon had been warned against such laziness recently.

Wired’s Danger Room blog points to a story filed by ABC News. Hezbollah members were able to determine that the spies were meeting their handlers at a Pizza Hut. How? Because CIA case officers allegedly used the code word (if it can be called that) “PIZZA” when discussing where to meet the spies. However, an anonymous U.S. official did report to ABC that the spies did not meet a local Pizza Hut.

If that rumor isn’t infuriating enough, Gizmodo links to a story by the AP in which in 2009, the CIA warned its officers about such laziness because its assets in Lebanon were vulnerable to detection. Officers were warned because Israel had approximately 100 agents wrapped up by Hezbollah’s counterintelligence group. This group used off-the-shelf technology to search for unique cell phone signals. For example, the group looked for phones that were used rarely, and only in specific locations. Then it would investigate who in the vicinity had secrets to sell, and a spy would be arrested. When this made headlines, the CIA began an investigation. It concluded that its officers and agents were vulnerable to this sort of detection. CIA officers were warned to take extra care when operating in Lebanon, and recommendations were issued.

If these stories are true (and with such breaking stories, skepticism is definitely advised), it would appear that CIA officers not only fell into routines when meeting agents, but they were also careless when communicating where to meet. But we just don’t know if it is true. Sure, there have been many well-publicized blunders by the CIA, but “pizza” for Pizza Hut does seem a bit silly (but who knows for sure). As the AP story points out, perhaps the more likely culprit is the very rigid control of agents by case officers. While this control can be beneficial in that it limits what sort of information will be revealed in event that someone is compromised, it can also restrict an officer’s flexibility. Control can lead to routine, which can be discovered and analyzed.

Surely there was a problem in Lebanon. Whether it was faulty tradecraft, too rigid control, or an unknown double agent, it is not clear just yet. The results were unfortunate for the U.S. (and perhaps deadly for the wrapped up spies), but this story does demonstrate the complexities of counterintelligence. Stay tuned for further information, should it arise.