With ABC News reporting this week that more than a dozen spies working for the CIA in Iran and Lebanon have been caught and are feared dead, one U.S. official said the losses had occurred because espionage is inherently a "risky business" in which there are "occasional setbacks."
But former senior CIA officer Robert Baer told ABC News this week that the loss of assets was more than a mere setback, and not an isolated incident but part of a disturbing pattern.
"When you lose your entire station, either in Tehran or Beirut, that's a catastrophe," said Bob Baer, a legendary CIA agent whose Middle East exploits were fictionalized in the George Clooney film "Syriana." Baer said the disaster was due in part to a new generation of agents that has forgotten, or never learned, the traditional methods of intelligence gathering.
"They don't understand tradecraft," Baer said. "And we have lost our touch in espionage."
After 10 years of war in Afghanistan and 8 in Iraq, said Baer, U.S. counterterrorism efforts have absorbed some of the habits and practices of the U.S. military, which he thinks is an unsustainable way for a spy agency to do business.
Technology, for example, has improved the agency's ability to find and eliminate targets, but at a cost.
"We're very good with drones," Baer said. "We've got, at the CIA, targeters that can find the enemy and get rid of them remotely. But all traditional espionage has gone away. And that does concern me because you need both. You just cannot live off drones forever."
Baer, who speaks frequently with current CIA officers, also notes that simply serving in war zones has contributed to the atrophy, a sentiment echoed by several recently retired CIA officers.
"There is an entire generation of case officers who have only met with assets on a base, surrounded by security," said one retired officer who still consults for the agency.
"It's not the same as meeting assets on a street, where you are responsible for your own security and surveillance."
In 2009, a Jordanian al Qaeda double agent was allowed onto a CIA base in Afghanistan, where he blew himself up and took seven CIA employees with him.
The CIA's espionage ring in Beirut was compromised when Hezbollah, through two double agents, learned of the restaurant where CIA officers were meeting with paid informants -- a Pizza Hut, according to two former officials.
Baer, who worked against Hezbollah while stationed in Beirut in the 1980s, said that public meetings like this would not have been part of the "commo plan" when he was there.
"You don't ever meet in restaurants under any circumstances at all," he said. "It's just unacceptable."
The news of the captured spies led Hezbollah to boast victory in the spy games on Wednesday.
"Lebanese intelligence vanquished U.S. and Israeli intelligence in what is now known as the intelligence war," said Hezbollah MP Hassan Fadlallah, according to AFP. "The resistance blinded American intelligence eyes."