A former FBI special agent and CIA analyst pleaded guilty Tuesday to using her database access privileges to search for information on relatives suspected of having ties to a reputed terrorist group, and who fraudulently obtained U.S. citizenship.
In federal court in Detroit Tuesday, Lebanese national Nada Nadim Prouty, 37, pleaded guilty to secretly obtaining information about ongoing FBI national security investigations. She is suspected of passing it on to relatives suspected of having ties to Hezbollah, a group that the U.S. government has classified as a foreign terrorist organization.
"Right now, CIA and FBI are both trying to find out what more she might have known, what more she might have passed on to Hezbollah, and was she in fact sent here by Hezbollah in the first place to penetrate the United States intelligence services," former government counter-intelligence official and ABC News consultant Richard Clarke said.
"As a special agent," court documents said, Prouty "was granted a security clearance" and assigned to a unit investigating crimes against U.S. citizens overseas.
While employed as a special agent, Prouty entered the FBI's computer system "without authorization, and beyond her authorized access, to query her own name" and those of her sister and brother-in-law. Those relatives later attended a fundraising event whose featured speaker was a U.S.-designated terrorist linked to Hezbollah.
The criminal information states that Prouty acted against FBI policy and took "an unknown quantity of classified information home with her."
Prouty's sister, brother-in-law and others were charged in federal court last year for an alleged scheme to cover up more than $20 million in cash funneled to individuals in Lebanon. Her sister, Elfat El Aouar, pleaded guilty to tax evasion last year and was sentenced to 18 months in prison. El Aouar's husband, Talal Chahine, is considered to be a fugitive and is thought to be in Lebanon, according to U.S. law enforcement officials.
Prouty resigned from her job as a midlevel CIA operations officer last week, after working at the agency for three years. According to an official familiar with the investigation, she worked for the National Clandestine Service, which runs covert operations.
Before joining the CIA in 2003, the FBI employed Prouty as a special agent, starting in 1999.
In an embarrassing twist, the investigation has also uncovered that Prouty fraudulently obtained U.S. citizenship, admitting in court documents that she paid a man to marry her in 1990 so she could obtain citizenship after her student visa expired.
Sources told ABC News that officials at the highest levels of government have been briefed on the case, which is seen as an embarrassment for two of the nation's top intelligence agencies. Both the FBI and the CIA have launched internal reviews looking at organizational security procedures.
The case raises important questions about how careful and effective the vetting of employees is at the nation's premier law enforcement and intelligence agencies. FBI agents are supposed to be regularly polygraphed and take lie detector tests before obtaining a CIA job.
"This is a failure of three systems," Clarke said. "It's a failure of the FBI background system, including polygraphs. It's a failure of the CIA hiring system, including polygraphs. And it's a failure of the FBI's computer system security, because she was able to obtain information that she shouldn't have had access to about Hezbollah, which she probably passed on to Hezbollah, a terrorist group."
As part of the investigation, the government is conducting a damage assessment. Officials told ABC News the amount of information they suspect was leaked appears to be limited, but investigators are checking all the ex-agent's contacts within both agencies and looking to see what databases she might have tapped into.
CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield issued a statement on the investigation, saying that the CIA cooperated with the investigation and that Prouty "was a midlevel employee who came to us in 2003 from the FBI where she had been a special agent. The naturalization issue occurred well before she was hired by the Bureau."
Mansfield confirmed that Prouty resigned from the CIA as part of her plea agreement.
"It is a sad day when one of our public servants breaches our security and trust," Assistant Attorney General Kenneth L. Wainstein said Tuesday. "This defendant engaged in a pattern of deceit to secure U.S. citizenship, to gain employment in the intelligence community, and to obtain and exploit her access to sensitive counterterrorism intelligence."
"It is fitting that she now stands to lose both her citizenship and her liberty," Wainstein added.
The plea agreement recommends that Prouty face a prison sentence between six and 12 months, and pay a maximum fine of $250,000. The documents also indicate Prouty will be on supervised release for two to three years after serving her sentence.