Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Israel’s storied foreign-intelligence service failed to fully understand the threat posed by Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, based on a view among many analysts that the guerrilla organization was an evolving political group, according to U.S. officials and private intelligence specialists.

The Mossad had intelligence about most Hezbollah weapons, including rockets fired into Israel and other hardware. But the service knew little about the military and intelligence side of Hezbollah, a diverse organization made up of Islamic terrorists, conventionally armed militia forces, a charity wing and a political movement.

Mossad is famous for past exploits, including the global campaign in the 1970s to track down and kill Palestinian terrorists in retaliation for the deaths of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Its specialty has been recruiting agents inside terrorist groups and using their information to effectively counter or limit attacks.

However, the recent fighting in southern Lebanon revealed major shortcomings in the agency’s intelligence on the precise locations of Hezbollah leaders and rocket launchers, said officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“This was an intelligence failure, but not on the same scale as those of the United States prior to 9/11,” said one U.S. official long involved in intelligence matters.

The U.S. official said Mossad’s lack of intelligence about Hezbollah dates back to 1998, when the terrorist group began a strategy of conducting clandestine attacks while also seeking public support through charitable work and joining the political process in Lebanon.

The bias regarding Hezbollah’s evolving nature had an effect on the activities of Israeli spies and agents in the field, which contributed to misperceptions about the group, the officials said.

Robert Baer, a former CIA operations officer who is familiar with Mossad, said the Israeli intelligence agency failed to gather good intelligence on Hezbollah, in stark contrast to its very successful efforts against Palestinian terrorists.

Israeli intelligence, mainly the Shin Bet domestic service, thoroughly penetrated many Palestinian terrorist groups. But Hezbollah employs extremely tight operational security to prevent penetration by Mossad or other intelligence services, Mr. Baer said.

Hezbollah operates its military and intelligence wings in utmost secrecy, and they are completely separate from the charitable and political wings, he said.

“Military-intelligence people do not talk to political leadership or rank-and-file people who do social work,” he said.

Dennis Pluchinsky, a former State Department intelligence analyst, said Mossad may have been “counting on the Lebanese population and government to turn on Hezbollah.”

Mr. Pluchinsky said the government in Beirut failed to take on the group, and there was a reluctance to “delegitimize Hezbollah.”

“I do not believe that the fault lies with Israeli military strategic and tactical failures, as much as a political strategic failure,” he said.

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney said Mossad knew details three years ago about Hezbollah’s Katyusha and other rockets.

“They knew what they had,” he said.

He said Israel’s war plan was undermined by political leaders, not by a lack of intelligence.

“Israel’s plan was that if they were fired upon, they would respond with a [leadership] decapitation program and massive air and ground campaigns into Lebanon,” Gen. McInerney said.

However, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert did not order the decapitation plan and was slow to carry out the ground campaign.

“It was not the intelligence,” he said. “There’s no question they did not take the heart out of Hezbollah.”

Although they are technically not intelligence components, Israeli special-operations commandos were effective in conducting covert attacks against Hezbollah leaders and fighters, but failed to kill or capture the group’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, mainly because of a lack of intelligence.

About 20 Hezbollah leaders were captured by Israeli commandos.

An Israeli air force officer told the Jerusalem Post that a lack of real-time intelligence hindered efforts to target Hezbollah leaders.

For example, Israel bombed a car last week in Lebanon that was thought to be carrying a senior Hezbollah leader. The bombing, however, killed three Lebanese soldiers.

In one air strike, the Israelis dropped 23 tons of bombs on a Beirut bunker thought to be a hide-out for Sheik Nasrallah and other Hezbollah leaders, but the leaders were not there.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declined to comment in a recent television interview on whether Mossad and the CIA failed to understand Hezbollah’s military capability. However, she told the Fox News Channel that “if you think about how these terrorist organizations operate, they go in with the population, they hide their capabilities inside of villages. They’re very hard to detect.”

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