5 CIA operations that went south -- spectacularly.
The Associated Press yesterday revealed that Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent, was working for the CIA when he disappeared on Iran in March 2007. But perhaps more surprising than Levinson's ties to the CIA was the reckless way in which the operation was carried out: He was sent to Iran's Kish Island, a smuggling hub in the Persian Gulf, by a team of analysts who had no authority to run intelligence operations, and who would eventually be accused by CIA investigators of hiding the fact that they were running an off-the-books spy mission from top officials at the agency.
The Associated Press yesterday revealed that Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent, was working for the CIA when he disappeared on Iran in March 2007. But perhaps more surprising than Levinson’s ties to the CIA was the reckless way in which the operation was carried out: He was sent to Iran’s Kish Island, a smuggling hub in the Persian Gulf, by a team of analysts who had no authority to run intelligence operations, and who would eventually be accused by CIA investigators of hiding the fact that they were running an off-the-books spy mission from top officials at the agency.
The fiasco caused a behind-the-scenes uproar in Congress and the CIA, which eventually forced three veteran analysts to leave the agency. Meanwhile, the White House, FBI, and State Department continued to publicly state that Levinson was a private citizen when he disappeared. The U.S. government urged the AP for years to avoid publishing news about Levinson’s CIA ties, and paid a $2.5 million settlement to his family to avoid a lawsuit that could have revealed the truth.
The Levinson saga, however, is far from the first time that a CIA operation not only failed, but failed so badly that outsiders were left wondering how officers for America’s premier spy agency could be so rotten at their jobs. Here are just a few of the most spectacularly botched operations in the Agency’s history.
Hezbollah rolls up CIA’s Pizza Hut spy ring
Lebanon has long been a playground for spies from across the Middle East. But in 2011, it appeared that U.S. intelligence services were getting badly outplayed by their rivals. More than a dozen informants recruited by the CIA were reportedly captured by Hezbollah and Iran, after the groups learned where the American spies were meeting their agents.
The CIA officers made Hezbollah’s job easy by employing shockingly sloppy tradecraft. According to current and former U.S. officials, two Hezbollah agents posing as potential recruits learned the location where the CIA officers met their informants — a Pizza Hut in Beirut. And the code word that the CIA allegedly used to set a meeting? "PIZZA."
From there, Hezbollah’s internal security only had to observe the Pizza Hut to identify the informants, who were promptly disappeared. U.S. intelligence officers reportedly ignored multiple warnings about the risks of using the same location to meet multiple recruits — and as a result, at least some CIA operations had to be suspended in Beirut during the summer of 2011. According to some, the damage was even more serious: "We were lazy and the CIA is now flying blind against Hezbollah," one former intelligence official told ABC News.
"The Italian Job"
In the days after the 9/11 attacks, the CIA expanded its use of "extraordinary rendition" — the practice of snatching subjects from one country and transferring them to another country, where they were sometimes tortured. Perhaps no such effort went as badly as the abduction of Islamist cleric Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr on the streets of Milan, Italy, in 2003.
Nasr had become a key figure in the city’s radical Islamist community, drawing the attention of American and Italian officials by delivering fiery sermons from a local mosque. And the CIA operation, which received the blessing of the Italian intelligence service, initially appeared a success: Nasr was grabbed during the middle of the day and flown to Cairo, where he claimed to have been tortured.
The CIA officers who conducted the operation, however, were anything but subtle. They used commercial cell phones, which allowed Italian police to eventually track their mobile phone records; they racked up enormous bills at five-star hotels; many used their real names while operating in the country; and their getaway van had been filmed by traffic cameras as they prepared to grab Nasr. As questions grew about what happened to the cleric, it soon became obvious to all that this had been a CIA operation.
Italian prosecutors, who had been kept in the dark about the operation, were not about to let those leads go unexamined. The prosecutors tapped CIA operatives’ phone lines and seized documents from their intelligence services archives to unravel the entire operation, in order to build a case that Nasr’s abduction actually thwarted an ongoing police investigation and thereby harmed Italy’s ability to monitor domestic radicals. In the case, 23 Americans who were part of the investigation were convicted in absentia of kidnapping — including the former head of the CIA in Milan, Robert Lady, who was handed an eight-year jail sentence.
The attempted killing of "Lebanon’s Khomeini"
In the worst days of the Lebanese civil war, the CIA not only found itself struggling against their stated enemies but also trying to rein in their supposed allies, whose brutality often went beyond what the American spies were willing to sanction.
In 1983 and 1984, the United States was targeted by three devastating suicide bombings that killed over 250 Americans, and were believed to be the work of Shia militants that would become a part of Hezbollah. The CIA judged that Shia cleric Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah was a key part of these attacks: In a 1985 report titled "Lebanon’s Khomeini," the CIA assessed that "Fadlallah plays an important role in the Hizballah terrorist network…[and] coordinates radical Shia activities in Beirut."
On March 8, 1985, a car bomb packed with over 400 pounds of explosives detonated outside Fadlallah’s house in the Beirut suburbs. The blast killed over 80 people and injured 200 more — but it did not kill Fadlallah, who escaped uninjured. According to former CIA field officer Robert Baer, who denied any CIA involvement in the plot, the attack was carried out by Christian Lebanese army officers. Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, however, would report that CIA Director William Casey had bypassed the agency’s traditional channel to funnel money to the hit squad that planted the bomb.
The angry crowds beneath Fadlallah’s house that day in March 1985, however, did not need Woodward’s reporting to blame the United States for the bloody attack. Immediately following the attack, residents strung up a banner reading "Made in USA" over the building destroyed by the bomb.
A Failed Syrian Coup
The United States’ current struggles in Syria aren’t the first time that it has failed to bend the country’s politics to its will. In the 1950s, the coup-ridden country found itself on the front lines of the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union for
predominance in the Middle East. By 1957, top CIA officials thought they saw an opportunity to spearhead a coup that would place Syria decisively in the Western camp.
According to Timothy Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes, the joint U.S.-British plan was to make Syria appear to be a threat to regional security as a pretext for regime change. Syria would be "made to appear as the sponsor of plots, sabotage and violence directed against neighboring governments," according to a document found in 2003 among the private papers of British Defense Secretary Duncan Sandys. As the CIA and British intelligence agencies stoked discontent both inside the country and on its borders, CIA officer Kermit Roosevelt identified three top officials who would need to be assassinated to destabilize the government.
The plot quickly went wrong. The CIA station chief in Damascus, Rocky Stone, chose his allies poorly: The Syrian officers he recruited went on television to publicize the plot, denouncing it as the work of "corrupt and sinister Americans." Stone was ejected from the country in what even a former U.S. ambassador to Syria would denounce as a "particularly clumsy CIA plot." Meanwhile, Syria fell completely into the Soviet camp, where it would stay for the duration of the Cold War.
Soviets Shoot Down U-2 Spy Plane
As the Cold War heated up in the 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower became obsessed with learning the true extent of Soviet military capabilities. Most importantly, he wanted to know how many intercontinental ballistic missiles the Soviets had pointed at the United States – and whether it was enough for them to emerge on top in a nuclear conflagration. In the middle of his term in office, the president was handed a new tool that could help him answer just that question — the U-2 spy plane, which could fly at heights that Soviet airplanes and missiles could not reach.
CIA-operated U-2 spy planes started flying over Soviet territory in 1956, using its state-of-the-art camera to snap pictures of military installations below. Unbeknownst to the United States, the Soviets could detect the planes by radar.
In 1960, during the last months of his presidency, Eisenhower was preparing to attend a summit in Paris with Soviet premier Nikita Kruschev intended to lessen the tension between the global powers. The president halted the U-2 flights as he pursued the rapprochement, describing the flights as "provocative pin-pricking" that could convince the Soviets that the United States was planning to bomb Soviet installations. CIA officer Richard Bissell, who was in charge of the U-2 program, pressed the president to allow one more flight before the summit.
On May 1, 1960, the U-2 flight piloted by Francis Gary Powers took off from a U.S. base in Peshawar, Pakistan. It was detected soon after it entered Soviet airspace, and Soviet jets and anti-air missiles were ordered to bring it down. 1,200 miles into Soviet airspace, an anti-air missile hit Powers’ plane, forcing him to eject as the plane hurtled toward the ground.
The diplomatic fallout was immediate. For four days, the United States continued to claim that the incident involved a weather plane that had drifted off course. On May 7, Kruschev revealed that Powers had been captured alive, along with wreckage from the plane, forcing the United States to admit to the espionage effort. The Paris summit soon broke up in recriminations, and the confrontation between the two superpowers only became more tense in the years ahead.
The next flashpoint was in Cuba, where the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion – a botched, CIA-directed attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro’s regime – would be a major factor in Castro’s decision to agree to a plan to position Soviet missiles on the island. The ensuing Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest the world has come to a nuclear war – and a case study in how one bad decision can lead to many more down the road.
David Kenner was Middle East editor at Foreign Policy from 2013-2018.
More from Foreign Policy
Chinese Hospitals Are Housing Another Deadly Outbreak
Authorities are covering up the spread of antibiotic-resistant pneumonia.
Henry Kissinger, Colossus on the World Stage
The late statesman was a master of realpolitik—whom some regarded as a war criminal.
The West’s False Choice in Ukraine
The crossroads is not between war and compromise, but between victory and defeat.
Washington wants to get tough on China, and the leaders of the House China Committee are in the driver’s seat.