Underneath a clever story lie troubling questions
Underneath a clever story lie troubling questions
A recent story published by McClatchy makes for eye-popping reading. The Central Intelligence Agency allegedly warned Hezbollah of a massive attack al Qaeda was planning on the southern suburbs of Beirut, Lebanon. As a result, Hezbollah was able to thwart the attack, saving dozens of civilian lives:
“Yes, a warning came from the CIA,” said a Hezbollah internal security commander who spoke on the condition that he not be identified because he was not authorized to talk to reporters. “They passed us this information through the mukhabarat (military intelligence), but we had our own information about the bombs.”
The story is fascinating for a number of reasons. The most obvious is that they show a level of sophistication in the CIA’s political thinking that is often left out of public discussions about the agency. According to McClatchy, the CIA contacted Lebanon’s security service and provided “very convincing and scary” signal intercepts indicating an imminent attack with the understanding that it would then be passed along to Hezbollah.
Hezbollah is many things, including a shadow government in swaths of Lebanon, but most importantly, it is a terrorist group with close ties to the Iranian regime in Tehran. But while it may sound bizarre, there is a cold geopolitical calculus behind the CIA’s warning.
Hezbollah and the Iranian Quds force (a special unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) are both fighting on behalf of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Some (but not all) of the rebel forces they are fighting in Syria are closely affiliated with al Qaeda.If the CIA were right — that an al Qaeda group was planning to massacre civilians in a Hezbollah-controlled area of Lebanon — then it would have represented a horrifying expansion of the Syrian conflict (which would catastrophically destabilize the entire region).
Put simply, if al Qaeda had succeeded in bringing the war to Hezbollah’s homefront, it could have turned all of northern Lebanon into a bloodbath as reprisal killings escalated. Even as the CIA sends weapons to rebel groups who might soon fight Hezbollah in Syria, neither the CIA nor Hezbollah wants to see the war spill out from the north.
That being said, there is an undeniable whiff of propaganda to the McClatchy story. Beyond the smart geopolitics of the warning, the story itself is larded with lots of interesting details and asides:
“They had transcripts of calls made from known al Qaida people in Lebanon to people in the Gulf that included detailed information about the attacks, including the amounts of explosives that had been smuggled into Lebanon,” said one Lebanese intelligence official who is barred from speaking openly to reporters. “We have already begun to make arrests.”
The official said Lebanese officials had monitored a series of militant phone calls but had not been able to listen to the calls’ content because it was encrypted. The United States, however, was able to listen to the calls, he said.
“America might hate the NSA right now, but they were able to actually hear the calls and warn us what was said,” the official said.
However, it is difficult to avoid noting how much the McClatchy story helps the intelligence community. The U.S. government has been dogged with Edward Snowden’s leaks about its pervasive surveillance programs. Then, in one fell swoop, there is a success story where the U.S. government’s vast surveillance powers do some act of unequivocal good, and that it did not involve sifting through the emails or phone calls of innocent people. Breaking with its usual modus operandi, the CIA did not hide its role with the Lebanese government — thereby assuring that when a Lebanese government official spoke to a reporter about it, a positive story would propagate.
That isn’t a slam on the reporter who broke this story, Mitchell Prothero. And it is a reminder that, in addition to privacy concerns, such surveillance is meant to accomplish something more constructive than crass voyeurism.
Yet even this leak exposes some fascinating intelligence shortfalls in the region. We learn that the Lebanese government lacks the means to tap into the phone calls of some militant groups, but that the CIA can. When it deems the information sufficiently valuable, the CIA will share that information even with groups it ordinarily considers an enemy, like Hezbollah, because the threat of al Qaeda is bigger than the threat of Hezbollah.
There will inevitably be people angry at the CIA’s decision to tip off a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization about an impending attack, revealing some of its capabilities in the process. But it also suggests that the U.S. intelligence community is eager to demonstrate it can play a positive role in international security.
Finally, beyond the intrigue and geopolitics is the last key detail revealed by this report: al Qaeda is trying to expand the war. Sending huge car bombs to southern Lebanon would be a provocative move regardless of who did it, but for an al Qaeda group to try it is downright scary. In June, an al Qaeda group clashed with the Lebanese army in Sidon, Lebanon leaving 16 people dead. Now they’re trying to blow up civilians in southern Lebanon. Will the CIA be able to stop the next attack? And if not, what happens when Lebanon is drawn more fully into the conflict?