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Should the CIA Be Sharing Intelligence That Could Help Hezbollah?

The enemy of the CIA's enemy in Lebanon is still its enemy. But, according to a report for McClatchy by FP contributor Mitchell Prothero, when the CIA discovered that al Qaeda-affiliated rebel groups in Syria were plotting attacks against Hezbollah's strongholds in Lebanon, they shared that intelligence with the Lebanese government -- "with the understanding that it would be passed to Hezbollah." (A U.S. official speaking to FP disputed the notion that the CIA would provide intelligence to a terrorist organization.)

Lebanese officials and a security contractor said the intelligence had included phone calls monitored by U.S. intelligence between militants in Lebanon and the Gulf. "America might hate the NSA right now, but they were able to actually hear the calls and warn us what was said," a Lebanese official told Prothero.

That prompted anger among some national security experts, like Guardian editor Spencer Ackerman and Brett Friedman of the Marine Corps Gazette.

 

 

At the Nation, Bob Dreyfuss cast the decision as blowback from the Obama administration's decision to arm Syrian rebels, which was announced in June but now seems to be on hold. "Astonishingly," Dreyfuss writes, "just as the CIA is helping Prime Minister [Nouri al-Maliki] in Iraq battle rebels allied to the Syrian opposition and to Al Qaeda -- now the United States is helping Lebanon squash the same fighters it supports against Assad!"

But why would the United States come to the aid of Hezbollah, a designated terrorist organization? The CIA declined to comment to McClatchy on the intelligence sharing, but "[c]onveying such a warning to the Lebanese government when civilian lives might be at risk would be a normal procedure, people familiar with CIA procedures" told Prothero.

U.S. officials have also been wary of the spread of al Qaeda-affiliated organizations in the Syrian rebellion and could be concerned about the increasing spillover of sectarian violence in Lebanon. By helping Lebanese groups -- even Hezbollah -- crack down on terrorism in Lebanon, Syria's proxy civil war can be better -- if not completely -- contained in Syria's own borders.

The Obama administration "seem[s] to feel that a sectarian conflagration will only end up playing into the hands of the Syrian regime," Elias Muhanna, author of the Lebanese politics blog Qifa Nabki, told Foreign Policy by email. "Whatever support the Syrian opposition currently enjoys among Lebanese Sunnis and others could be significantly dampened by the spillover of sectarian violence into Lebanon. Even if most people blame Hizbullah for opening the gates of hell, the fact that AQ rode right through them in the name of the Syrian rebellion doesn't do the US agenda any favors."

But that's not enough for some critics. "While a stable Lebanon is in the US interest, I have serious concerns about the CIA sharing intelligence, even in an indirect way, with a terrorist organization," Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told FP by email. "The station chief may have bought himself a bit of good will with the Shi'ite terrorist group. But that's not our objective. Our objective is to defeat it -- in Lebanon, where it is based, and now in Syria."

Update: Clarifying some of the nuance lost in Twitter's abberviated style, Spencer Ackerman writes, "I was making a joking commentary about NSA surveillance's utility for Hezbollah, as I've been covering that surveillance quite extensively, and not an outraged policy argument." We've kept the tweets here for their perspective, but Ackerman's intent was not to stake out a policy position.

MAHMOUD ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images

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