America faces a growing threat from "hundreds" of agents of Hezbollah in the U.S as tensions grow over Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program, current and former law enforcement officials warned the House Committee on Homeland Security on Wednesday.
Opening hearings in Washington on the domestic security threat posed by the Iranian-supported terror group, committee chairman Peter King, Republican of New York, called Hezbollah "one of international terrorism's most violent murder gangs" and said that the government had a duty to "prepare for the worst."
The director of intelligence analysis for the New York Police Department and former officials of the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the Treasury Department who had worked intimately on Federal cases involving Hezbollah agreed that the militant Shiite group now posed a greater threat to Americans at home than Al Qaeda, Sunni Muslim militants, and that more needed to be done to identify operatives and limit their operations here.
They also agreed that a foiled Hezbollah plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. by bombing a restaurant in Washington last October was a "game-changer" suggesting that the group would not hesitate to strike on American soil if necessary by transforming what has previously been operations focused mainly on fund-raising into terror plots.
The committee was told that the more than 20 federal cases involving the Lebanese-based Hezbollah since 9/11 was probably just the tip of the iceberg of the group's presence in the U.S., since the Federal government had chosen to quietly deport many other alleged operatives and settle other cases with publicly identifying suspected agents involved. Mr. King added that Iran has often used its diplomats to spy on American targets and support fund-raising and terror-related actions of its agents. "There also are 55 Iranian diplomats at the United Nations mission in New York and another 29 Iranian officials here at its interests section, many of whom, Mr. King said, are "presumed to be intelligence officers."
But Bennie Thompson, of Mississippi, the ranking Democrat on the committee, questioned whether the testimony being presented was based on "outdated" information and intelligence. "No current federal officials" had been asked to testify Wednesday, he complained.
But Mitchell D. Silber, of the NYPD, disclosed the existence of three more recent cases in which Federal authorities appeared to have taken no action against alleged spies. Iranian diplomats had been "released without incident" in May, 2005, September, 2008, and September, 2010 after the NYPD had caught ostensible diplomats or employees of the Iran Broadcasting Company taking photos and video-tapes of such potential targets as cruise liners, railroad tracks inside Grand Central Station, and most recently, the Wall Street heliport.
Silber added that over the past six months, the NYPD's investigation into terrorist plots with a "plausible nexus to Iran" that were conducted or foiled in Azerbaijan, India, Georgia, Thailand, and in Washington had "heightened our concerns" about a possible attack by Iran in New York.
Christopher Swecker, a former FBI assistant director in charge of the Criminal Investigative Division, called Hezbollah the "A Team" of terrorist organizations, given its history, its organizational reach, para-military training, and the state sponsorship of Iran. He described a landmark money-laundering case that the Bureau launched in 1998 showing how Hezbollah had leveraged the "full range of criminal activities" to raise money for the group. In March, 2001, he said, an indictment named 25 defendants in a 77 count federal bill of indictment that included such crimes as cigarette smuggling, interstate transport of stolen property, immigration, bank, mail and credit card fraud, and conspiracy to provide material support for a terrorist organization.
Michael A Braun, a former assistant administrator and chief of operations of the DEA, warned of Iran's "growing presence in the Western Hemisphere and beyond" and the growing nexus between networks used by Mexican drug cartels and terrorist groups, especially Hezbollah. "If anyone thinks for one moment that these terrorist organizations do not understand that the Mexican drug trafficking cartels now dominate drug trafficking in our country, reportedly in more than 250 cities, then they are ignorant or very naïve," Dr. Braun said.
He also warned that another terrorist group heavily involved in drug trading, the Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, had financed the construction of mini-submarine-like boats, one of which had carried 8 tons of cocaine from the shores of Colombia to northern Mexico. More had to be done, he said, to break down barriers that still separate counternarcotics and counterterrorism activities.
Matthew Levitt, a former senior Treasury Department official now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that while Hezbollah once saw America mainly as a "cash cow" to finance its sprawling activities in Lebanon where it operates openly as a powerful political faction and throughout the world, it was "no longer clear" that Iran saw carrying out an attack in the U.S. "as crossing some sort of red line." He said that
Hezbollah specialized in recruiting agents whom it used as sleeper agents, often for years without activating them. Its agents, he added, often "don't fit the profile," which made the organization a more potent terrorist threat.
Levitt and other witnesses cited testimony last January by James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, that Iran's leaders are "more willing to conduct an attack inside the United States in response to real or perceived U.S. actions that threaten the regime."
All the witnesses agreed there was no certainty that Iran would strike in the U.S. if tensions over the nuclear program escalated or if Israel or the U.S. launched a military attack against its nuclear facilities. Nor could they link any specific surveillance incident in New York to an actual plot. But, Mr. Silber added, "Iran has a proven record of using its official presence in a foreign city to coordinate attacks, which are then carried out by Hezbollah agents from abroad, often leveraging the local community -- whether wittingly or not -- as facilitators."
Intelligence officials blame Hezbollah for more American deaths than any group except Al Qaeda. Its attacks on the U.S. Marine's peace-keeping compound in Beirut in 1983 and on Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996 had claimed some 150 deaths alone. It had staged far-flung successful attacks – two in Buenos Aires in 1992 and 1994 against Jewish and Israeli targets.
"If Iran had it way," said Mr. King, "Washington D.C. would have witnessed terrible carnage amid the smoking ruins of a popular local restaurant only a few months ago," referring to the thwarted attack on Adel Al –Jubeir, the Saudi ambassador.
Mr. King used Mr. Silber's presence at the hearings to praise the NYPD as the nation's most effective counter-terrorism force, and to attack press and other critics of the department's Muslim surveillance program as "irresponsible," "misguided" and "cheap."