By Fred Burton and Scott Stewart
Stars and Stripes
On Dec. 4, Samar Spinelli, a U.S. Marine captain, pleaded guilty in U.S. district court in Detroit to conspiring to commit citizenship and passport fraud. By pleading guilty, Spinelli admitted to having conspired with her former roommate, Nada Nadim Prouty, to fraudulently obtain U.S. citizenship. Prouty, a former FBI agent and CIA case officer, pleaded guilty in the same court in November to accessing a federal computer system to obtain information about the Lebanese-based militant group Hezbollah and conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government, among other charges. Spinelli’s other former roommate, Elfat El Aouar — Prouty’s sister — is serving an 18-month prison sentence for tax evasion. All three women were born in Lebanon.
The evidence, allegations and related cases suggest that Hezbollah has established a sophisticated intelligence apparatus that reaches into the United States. Moreover, it is possible — though certainly not proven — that Spinelli and Prouty used their positions in government agencies to provide Hezbollah with sensitive information. If these women were indeed Hezbollah plants, the magnitude of the information they provided to Hezbollah and Iran could be similar in importance to the information Robert Hanssen provided to the Soviets and Russians — and the damage could prove to be just as great.
Although the network of interpersonal relations and sham marriages muddle the story, the evidence appears as follows:
One of the three former roommates, El Aouar, is married to fugitive Talal Chahine, an alleged Hezbollah financial operative who is believed to be hiding in Lebanon. Chahine was charged in 2006 in the Eastern District of Michigan with tax evasion in connection with a scheme to conceal more than $20 million in cash received by a chain of restaurants he owns and routing those funds to “persons in Lebanon.” In October 2007, Chahine, along with a senior Immigrations and Customs Enforcement official in Detroit and several other people, was charged in a bribery and extortion conspiracy in which federal immigration benefits allegedly were awarded to illegal aliens in exchange for money that also apparently ended up in Hezbollah’s coffers.
According to court documents, Spinelli, whose maiden name was Khalil Nabbouh, entered the United States from Lebanon on a student visa in 1989. After her arrival, she lived in Taylor, Mich., with sisters Elfat El Aouar and Nada Nadim El Aouar (who would later become Nada Prouty). The El Aouar sisters also had entered the United States on student visas, and had failed to return to Lebanon once their studies ended.
On April 13, 1990, Spinelli entered into a fraudulent marriage with Jean Paul Deladurantaye in order to remain in the United States and obtain U.S. citizenship. On Aug. 9, 1990, Spinelli then facilitated Prouty’s fraudulent marriage to Chris Deladurantaye, the brother of Spinelli’s sham husband.
Spinelli enlisted in the U.S. Marines in 1990 and, after receiving her citizenship, divorced Deladurantaye and married a fellow Marine, Capt. Gary Spinelli, in 1995. Commissioned as a Marine officer in 1997, Spinelli rose to the rank of captain and was awarded several decorations. She reportedly was serving her second tour of duty in Iraq when she was called back to face the fraud charges.
Meanwhile, Prouty worked as a waitress at one of Chahine’s restaurants as she earned a bachelor’s degree from Detroit Business College. After gaining her U.S. citizenship in 1994, she moved to Pennsylvania to pursue an MBA at Bloomsburg University. While at Bloomsburg, she met and married Andrew Alley, who had served as a Marine during Operation Desert Storm. In 1997, the FBI hired Prouty as an agent and assigned her to the FBI’s Washington field office, where she worked on an extraterritorial squad investigating crimes against U.S. persons overseas — terrorism cases. As part of her duties, she investigated the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole and the 2002 assassination of American diplomat Laurence Foley, in Amman, Jordan. In 2000, Prouty divorced Alley and later married Foreign Service officer Gordon Prouty, who had served at U.S. embassies in Islamabad, Pakistan, and Cairo, Egypt.
Knowing Nada Prouty from her work as an FBI agent working terrorism cases, the CIA hired her in 2003, and she became an agency case officer. She reportedly was assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and participated in a number of interrogations of high-value suspects, including captured al Qaeda members. When the CIA learned of Prouty’s immigration fraud in December 2005, the agency reportedly moved her to a less sensitive language-training post.
Elfat El Aouar also was involved in a sham marriage in 1990 and, like her sister, went on to earn an MBA. She became the financial manager of the La Shish restaurants and married La Shish owner Chahine in 2000. She was convicted on tax evasion charges and sentenced in May 2007. A third sister, Rula Nadim El Aouar, also has been charged with immigration fraud as a result of her 1992 sham marriage to a man who worked as a dishwasher at a La Shish restaurant. It was the investigation into the activities of Chahine and El Aouar that eventually led authorities to Prouty and Spinelli.
The Potential Blowback
Although there is no evidence at this point that Prouty and Spinelli worked on behalf of Hezbollah, we cannot ignore the fact that the U.S. government has produced evidence that Prouty’s sister and Chahine attended an August 2002 Hezbollah fundraiser in Lebanon — during which Chahine was seated in a position of honor at the right hand of Hezbollah’s spiritual leader, Sheikh Muhammed Hussein Fadlallah.
Additionally, Prouty did admit in her guilty plea that in September 2000 she used the FBI’s computerized Automated Case System (ACS) without authorization to look up her own name, her sister’s name and that of Chahine. Prouty also admitted that in June 2003 she accessed the ACS to obtain information relating to an FBI national security investigation into Hezbollah — though she had not been officially assigned to work any Hezbollah cases.
It is important to note, however, that the FBI did, and still does, employ relatively few native Arabic speakers, and even fewer special agents who speak the language. The bureau is a hierarchical organization with a very agent-oriented culture, meaning agents are regarded far more highly than are analysts, technicians or translators. Agents trust other agents and will often discuss matters among themselves that they will not discuss with outsiders or translators. They also will seek assistance from fellow agents who have rare skills, such as native Arabic ability. So, although Prouty was assigned to a squad with an extraterritorial focus, she undoubtedly was given access to many cases that she was not officially assigned to work, gaining insight into the bureau’s domestic counterintelligence capabilities in relation to Arabic-speaking terrorist groups such as Hezbollah.
The timing of Prouty’s transfer to the CIA is also interesting in that it came on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. A case officer who spoke native Arabic would have been indispensable in an environment such as Iraq, especially at a time when there were many high-value suspects to interrogate and sources to interview. Such an employee undoubtedly would be given insight into almost everything happening in the CIA’s station and would have ready access to a great deal of information.
This is the kind of information that would be of utmost importance to Iran. Tehran, considering the invasion as a potential threat to its own interests — believed the U.S. operations in Iraq required close monitoring. Following the invasion, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad became one of the most significant in the world — especially from the Iranian perspective. While the Iranians undoubtedly planted their loyalists in the local guard force and the embassy’s local support staff, those people would not have had nearly the same access as a cleared American officer.
So, if Prouty were working on behalf of Hezbollah and its Iranian masters, she would have been able to gather a significant amount of information regarding the FBI’s domestic counterterrorism capabilities and programs, as well as information pertaining to investigations it was running against Hezbollah. More importantly, she would have had an insider’s view of how the FBI conducts such operations, which would allow her to determine how a group such as Hezbollah could use gaps in that capability and coverage to avoid detection. If Prouty was used to translate Arabic conversations from telephone taps or other listening devices, she could have learned the targets of such devices and the locations where the device were planted. Furthermore, if she were asked to interview Arabic-speaking sources, she would have little trouble identifying them.
As a CIA case officer, Prouty would also be able to provide Hezbollah and Iran with a detailed look at CIA training and intelligence tradecraft, in addition to a wide variety of information pertaining to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, as well as the CIA station and its sources of intelligence there. Just the classified cable traffic she would be privy to would be a treasure trove to a hostile intelligence agency, especially the operational reports that might be useful in identifying sources. Even though sources are identified by codes rather than their real names, the characterization of the source, the information provided and the timeframe in which the source provided the information can be very useful to a counterintelligence service. Such revelations can, and do, lead to the deaths of sources.
In the past, it was thought that only nation states such as Russia or Israel had the potential to send agents into another country to infiltrate their most sensitive government agencies. In this case, it could turn out that a militant group (perhaps with a little help from its Iranian mentors) was able to accomplish this feat. In this case, the agents might not only have penetrated those agencies, but maneuvered themselves into positions and locations of critical importance to Hezbollah and the Iranians. It would be quite a coup for Hezbollah to pull off such a feat while the United States and Iran were in the midst of a covert intelligence war.
Flaws in the System
These cases highlight the gaps in U.S. immigration policy and demonstrates the ways in which individuals — and militant organizations — can exploit those vulnerabilities to enter or remain in the United States fraudulently.
Furthermore, the cases demonstrate that the FBI, CIA and Marine Corps all failed to detect this web of sham marriages when they conducted background investigations on the women in question, especially since the marriages were within the seven-year investigative window required for Prouty’s FBI clearance and Spinelli’s enlistment in the Marine Corps. A full field background investigation should have been able to determine the nature of the sham marriages, given that the women never lived with their purported husbands.
The problem, however, is that background investigations often are seen as mundane tasks, and thus are not given high priority — especially when there are so many other “real” cases to investigate. Furthermore, the work is most often done by contract investigators whose bureaucratic bosses emphasize speed over substance, meaning important leads can be ignored because of a case deadline. The contractors who do dig deeply sometimes are accused of trying to milk the system and acquire more points (the basis upon which contract investigators are paid.)
Of course, in cases involving Lebanese citizens (and many other Middle Easterners) it is extremely difficult to investigate their lives prior to their arrival in the United States. Even verifying the identity of such a person is difficult, not to mention that it would be relatively easy for a Lebanese Shi’i to claim to be a Maronite or a Druze. Furthermore, even if the person is who he or she claims to be — and has entered the United States with good intentions — the powerful militias back home, such as Hezbollah, still could force that person to provide them with information by threatening his or her relatives in the home country.
After Prouty’s arrest, an FBI spokesman noted that she passed a polygraph test before being hired (she undoubtedly also passed one before being hired by the CIA, as it is standard agency procedure). However, the U.S. government has long known that the results of polygraph tests administered to Middle Easterners, Muslims in particular, can be seriously flawed. The reason, frankly, is that for a host of cultural and religious reasons, lying does not stress Middle Easterners and Muslims as much as it does Western Christians. This allows them to defeat polygraph tests. For a system that depends so heavily upon polygraphs — especially when the system is working hard to recruit people with Arabic and Farsi language skills — this is a serious vulnerability.
The fact that Prouty and Spinelli were intelligent female candidates with desired language skills further allowed them to exploit the flaws in the system. Spinelli, who served two deployments to Iraq, would have found herself in a very good position to collect intelligence regarding military deployments, capabilities and intentions, as well as sensitive details regarding the Iraqi military. A female Marine officer in a war zone would also be able to gather a boatload of information from social contacts in Iraq. As for Prouty, a female Arabic speaker with an MBA, there is almost no way the FBI would have passed on the opportunity to hire such a perfect candidate.
Whether the two women exploited their positions for personal advancement or for Hezbollah might never be fully revealed — though the many coincidences in these cases and the Hezbollah connections certainly are intriguing.