The Limits of US Spying in Beirut

U.S. Marine Base near Beirut Airport following a massive bomb blast that destroyed the base and caused a huge death, Oct. 23, 1983.
This is the scene around the U.S. Marine Base near Beirut Airport following a massive bomb blast that destroyed the base and caused a huge death, Oct. 23, 1983. (AP Photo/File)

In the mountains overlooking Beirut and the Mediterranean, a new, ultra-modern American embassy is about to open any day now. But the timing, coinciding with the ongoing Israel-Hamas war in Gaza and President Joe Biden's deepening military engagement on several related Middle Eastern fronts, could not be more dangerous for the diplomats posted there. And for the CIA officers at the agency’s storied Beirut station, the challenge of collecting timely, accurate, on-the-ground intelligence to help inform the president’s policy decisions remains as daunting as ever.

The new Beirut embassy will open at a time when Lebanon's Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia has been showing its support for Hamas for the past three months by initiating artillery duels with Israeli forces along their shared border. On Tuesday, Reuters reported that Israeli warplanes and artillery struck Hezbollah targets deep inside southern Lebanon, heightening concerns that the fighting could grow into a full-blown war.

At the same time, pro-Iranian Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria have responded to the administration’s military and intelligence support for Israel with more than 150 rocket attacks on U.S. forces stationed in those two countries, prompting retaliatory U.S. airstrikes that have destroyed militia bases and killed a number of their members. And in the wake of more than two dozen attacks on American and international shipping in the Red Sea by Yemen’s Iran-armed Houthi rebels, U.S. air and naval forces have destroyed Houthi radars and missiles stores. The latest U.S. airstrike took place Tuesday, after Houthi missiles damaged a Greek-owned cargo ship earlier in the day and hit a U.S.-owned merchant ship on Monday.

With no end in sight to the widening regional war, some current and former U.S. intelligence officials say the Beirut embassy once again is emerging as a tempting target for Hezbollah — just as the last two American diplomatic missions did four decades ago.

“Once Hezbollah gets it in their mind that America is once again a target, then they're going to launch a rocket or two at the new embassy,” probably forcing its evacuation, James Stejskal, a former Green Beret and CIA operative who also served in several Middle Eastern postings, told SpyTalk.

Sam Wyman, a former CIA case officer who served at the Beirut station and still closely monitors events in Lebanon, seconds that view. “I think you can assume there will be reactions from Hezbollah [to U.S. support for Israel], both abroad and at home,” he said in an interview.

It’s a target that would be hard to miss.

Sprawling over 43 acres on a hilltop in the East Beirut suburb of Aoukar some 13 miles from Beirut’s city center, the isolated embassy resembles a modern version of the Crusader fortresses that dot the Levantine landscape. The embassy’s complex of multi-story buildings includes the chancery and the consulate, as well as residential buildings with outdoor dining plazas and shaded gardens for the embassy staff. The compound also boasts a swimming pool, sports facilities and art galleries, along with its own power plant and a full waste-water treatment facility.

The self-contained complex, which bristles with communications antennae and signals intelligence equipment, is surrounded by a perimeter of high blast walls to prevent any repetition of the devastating Hezbollah truck bombing in 1983 that destroyed the original American embassy on West Beirut’s once-fashionable seafront corniche, killing 63 people, including legendary CIA spy Robert Ames and seven other intelligence officers. Or a second powerful Hezbollah blast that pancaked the three-story barracks housing U.S. Marine peacekeepers, killing a total of 241 U.S. servicemen. A third Hezbollah bombing the following year sheared the face off the U.S. “annex” in East Beirut, where embassy operations had been moved, killing another 23 people, including two Americans. The United States designated Hezbollah as a foreign terrorist organization in 1997.

“Obviously Beirut is a high-risk post, or you wouldn't be forcing your staff to live in the compound,” said Jeffrey Feltman, a retired career diplomat who served as the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon from 2004 to 2008. “If you’re a U.S. diplomat or a CIA officer, you don’t want to live in the embassy compound; you want to be out among the people you’re supposed to be meeting and learning about. So by having a self contained, secure compound is already acknowledging that there is a risk to U.S. personnel in Lebanon.”

Feltman is quick to point out such precautions are not simply a hangover from the previous embassy bombings or the deadly 2012 attack by a mob of Islamist militants on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

“It’s an ongoing, real concern,” Feltman stressed. In addition to the embassy’s isolated location, its security precautions have constrained the movement of both diplomats and CIA officers, hobbling their ability to develop contacts and confidential informants and collect accurate, timely intelligence on Hezbollah’s next moves, current and former spies say. For example, ever since the first embassy bombing in 1983 and Hezbollah’s subsequent seizure of foreign hostages, including CIA Beirut station chief William Buckley, whom the militants tortured to death in 1985, the State Department has ruled out travel by U.S. diplomats to Lebanon’s eastern Beqaa Valley and the heavily Shiite south of the country, both of which Hezbollah controls. So has the CIA, intelligence sources say.

Official U.S. travel within Lebanon remains restricted to the country’s pro-Western Christian enclaves—East Beirut and its suburbs, the contiguous Mt. Lebanon region and the towns of Zahle and Jezzine—and the country’s Sunni-dominated north, U.S. officials say. For routine meetings with Lebanese government members, such officials must cross the so-called “Green Line,” which has divided Moslem West and Christian East Beirut since the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975. American diplomats can meet their Lebanese guests at one of the Green Line’s crossing points and escort them back to the embassy for their meetings, but they cannot leave the embassy for such outings unless they travel in an armored car with armed bodyguards.

CIA officers travel in rented cars, which they rent with fake names and paint a different color every few weeks in an effort to defeat Hezbollah surveillance, says Robert Baer, a 21-year CIA veteran who spent most of his career in the Middle East, including the Beirut and Damascus stations. “We carried weapons,” he recalled. “But a lot of good that would do you. You’d be worse off to be found carrying a 9mm pistol than carrying nothing in a place like Lebanon.”

No Go Zone

No area of Lebanon is more off-limits to both U.S. diplomats and spies than Dahiyeh, the impoverished Shiite neighborhood in southern Beirut where Hezbollah maintains its headquarters.

“It’s well known that Dahiyeh is a ‘Denied Area’ for foreign intelligence services to operate in,” Glenn Corn, a former CIA case officer who served in the Middle East, told SpyTalk. “In fact, even the Lebanese government’s own security and intelligence services have very little access to Dahiyeh, given the control that Hezbollah exercises over the area with its extensive security and counterIntelligence regimes. Foreign Intelligence officials who’ve worked in Lebanon know that it’s extremely difficult to conduct operations in Dahiyeh.

“There are many stories about foreigners,” he adds, “who attempt to enter this stronghold being detained by Hezbollah and either expelled from the area or placed in custody.”

Feltman, now a visiting fellow in international diplomacy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, confirms Corn’s assessment. He says the CIA’s Beirut station maintains a close liaison relationship with the Christian-dominated Lebanese Armed Forces’ B-2 military intelligence unit, which shares reliable intelligence on Lebanon’s militant Sunni groups. “But the B-2 relationship is very limited in importance when it comes to Hezbollah,” he says. Baer adds it is widely believed that Hezbollah operatives have infiltrated the B-2 unit.

Baer strongly doubts that today the CIA has any high-level informants inside Hezbollah providing the agency with strategic intelligence.

“The Hezbollah people won’t talk to you unless you have a personal relationship with them,” he said. “There’s no situation where the CIA or State Department can go to a mosque where Hezbollah people hang out and start chatting them up and invite them to a tea. That ain’t gonna happen. And the CIA is not going to send a Muslim American to Beirut under non-official cover,” Baer adds. “It’s too dangerous.”

Several former CIA operatives who served in Beirut say the CIA station there does have some low-level informants in Lebanon, but they agree that the embassy depends largely on signals intelligence—monitoring cell phone conversations—to try to learn what Hezbollah is up to. Baer expects collecting intelligence on Hezbollah at the new embassy will be no different—and no more productive: They know the U.S. is eavesdropping.

“You can build the embassy as big as you want,” he said. “And it’s fine if you want to put antennas on the roof to pick up chatter. But keep in mind that Hezbollah doesn’t do much chattering on the phone. They know better. So we’re blind, locked up in a fortress. Meanwhile, the Indians are outside the walls, and they want to scalp us.”

Left of Boom

To be sure, there’s no love lost between Hezbollah, which is closely aligned with Iran, and the United States. But there’s debate among current intelligence officials, diplomats and Middle East experts over whether Hezbollah would dare attack the new American Embassy in Beirut or other American targets in the Middle East.

Politico recently reported that U.S. intelligence agencies have collected evidence that suggests the militants are considering attacks on both U.S. diplomats and troops in the region, adding that the State Department recently bolstered security at the current Beirut embassy, whose operations are soon to be moved to the new location. There’s even a possibility, the report said, that Hezbollah could mount an attack inside the United States.

But other longtime Middle East watchers say that while Hezbollah is prepared to continue its low-level skirmishes along Israel’s northern border, the last thing the group wants is for the fighting there to escalate into a full-blown war that would draw in U.S. forces. A Hezbollah attack on a U.S. target in the region or on the homeland itself would virtually guarantee that wider war and America’s entry into it, these analysts say. A U.S. Navy aircraft carrier battle group has been anchored off the coast ofLebanon ever since the Israel-Hamas war broke out on Oct. 7. In addition to its warplanes and cruise missiles, the battle group also includes 1,000 U.S. Marines to help evacuate the Beirut embassy if needed.

“Right now, the war in Gaza is going the way Hezbollah and Iran like,” said Feltman. “The growing condemnation over the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza; the level of Israeli destruction in response to Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack means that Israel is the focus of global outrage. If Hezbollah were suddenly launching rockets into the American embassy, it’s going to change the narrative. So right now. Iran and Hezbollah are getting exactly what they want—worldwide condemnation of Israel and association of the United States with Israel. Why make it look as though they’re going after the United States? Why risk changing the narrative when the narrative works in their favor right now?”

Others point out that Hezbollah, in addition to its powerful military wing, is also a political party that must consider broader Lebanese national interests as well as those of its Shiite constituency.

Hezbollah learned that lesson the hard way in 2006, when a cross-border raid that killed several Israeli soldiers unexpectedly sparked a 34-day war in which the Israeli air force caused massive destruction to Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure, targeting Beirut’s international airport, as well as roads, bridges, dams, power stations, water works and desalination plants. Lebanese recriminations against Hezbollah, including from many Shiites, were so fierce that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said that had he known how destructive Israel’s response would be, he never would have approved the cross-border raid.

During a visit to Israeli troops on the Lebanon border last month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that Israel would "single-handedly turn Beirut and South Lebanon, not far from here, into Gaza and Khan Yunis" if Hezbollah started an all-out war. He was referring to Israel’s devastation of the Gaza Strip in the current fighting, which has turned towns like Khan Yunis and Gaza City into rubble and killed some 24,000 Palestinians so far, according to Gaza’s Hezbollah-run Health Ministry.

Andrew Tabler, a former Arab affairs adviser on the National Security Council, makes another argument against a Hezbollah attack on a U.S. target or a widening of its war with Israel. Tabler notes that Hezbollah’s arsenal of an estimated 150,000 missiles and rockets, some of which are precision-guided with ranges long enough to hit any target inside Israel, including its nuclear reactor, serves as Iran’s deterrence against an Israeli attack. “So I doubt that Hezbollah would waste its arsenal by provoking a war with Israel or the United States right now,” he said in an interview.

Even Baer, the former CIA operative, questions the prospect of a Hezbollah attack on the new U.S. embassy in Beirut. “They would rather fight the Israelis than give the United States any excuse to join in,” he says.

Yet every one of these skeptics also acknowledges that the course of the current fighting in the Middle East is wildly unpredictable. On Tuesday and Wednesday, Iran launched missile and drone strikes at targets in Iraq, Syria and Pakistan. An Iranian missile destroyed a house in the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil that Tehran claimed served as a base for Israeli Mossad spies. At the same time, Iran hit what it said were Islamic State targets in northern Syria. The third strike hit what Iran said was the headquarters of an armed anti-government Sunni group in Pakistan’s western Baluchistan province near the Iranian border. On Thursday Pakistan responded with a strike on Iran.

“We are a missile power in the world,” Iran’s defense minister, Mohammad Reza Ashtiani, told reporters after a cabinet meeting, according to state media. “Wherever they want to threaten the Islamic Republic of Iran, we will react, and this reaction will definitely be proportionate, tough and decisive.”

Clock Running

Meanwhile, Israeli military leaders have said the continued displacement of some 80,000 Israelis from their homes in northern border towns is intolerable and must be resolved soon, either by a current U.S. effort to broker a diplomatic agreement that moves all Hezbollah forces away from the Israeli border, or by military means. If Israel loses patience and invades southern Lebanon using U.S.-supplied munitions, it’s not hard to imagine Hezbollah adding the new U.S. embassy in Beirut to its target list.

The problem today for U.S. spies and diplomats in Beirut, Feltman said, is the same lack of reliable strategic intelligence on Hezbollah’s thinking that he suffered from when he served as ambassador.

“I couldn’t talk to Hezbollah, and Hezbollah wouldn’t talk to me,” he said. “So I appreciated the information that the agency managed to come up with through both signals intelligence, as well as human intelligence. But how accurate is any of it? You never know.”

SpyTalk Editor-in-Chief Jeff Stein contributed reporting to this piece.

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