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How big a role did disgraced CIA officer have?

NBC News has learned that Nada Nadim Prouty, the young Lebanese woman who pleaded guilty Tuesday to charges she lied about her background, had a much bigger role than officials acknowledged. Andrea Mitchell and Robert Windrem report.
/ Source: NBC News

There’s new information about the young Lebanese woman who pleaded guilty Tuesday to charges she lied about her background to get jobs at the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Central Intelligence Agency.

Current and former intelligence officials tell NBC News that Nada Nadim Prouty had a much bigger role than officials at the FBI and CIA first acknowledged. In fact, Prouty was assigned to the CIA’s most sensitive post, Baghdad, and participated in the debriefings of high-ranking al-Qaida detainees.

A former colleague called Prouty “among the best and the brightest” CIA officers at the government's most sensitive post - Baghdad. A second colleague added she was "quite highly thought of: and had received some prime assignments.

Among them: the investigation of the USS Cole bombing in Yemen and the investigation of war crimes in Rwanda, the East African nation racked by genocide.

So exceptional was her work, agree officials of both agencies, the CIA recruited her from the FBI to work for the agency’s clandestine service at Langley, Va., in June 2003. She then went to Iraq for the agency to work with the U.S. military on the debriefings.

“Early on, she was an active agent in the debriefings,” said one former intelligence official. “It was more than translation.”

On Tuesday, she pleaded guilty to conspiracy to illegally search FBI computers for classified information about Hezbollah and to naturalization fraud — a sham marriage to a former husband just to become a U.S. citizen. As the Justice Department noted, she needed to be a U.S. citizen to join the CIA and thus had defrauded the agency. (Prouty first came to the United States on a student visa in 1989 and after overstaying her visa paid an acquaintance in Detroit to marry her so she could get U.S. citizenship. She later divorced the man.)

Although no one claims Prouty worked for Hezbollah, her computer searches led U.S. officials to question her. She looked up files on her sister, Elfat El Aouar,  and brother-in-law, Talal Khalil Chahine, both of whom attended a Hezbollah fundraiser in Lebanon — alongside Hezbollah spiritual leader Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, designated by the United States as a terrorist.  

Talal Khalil Chahine (left) and Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah in Lebanon, 2002
Talal Khalil Chahine (left) and Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah in Lebanon, 2002U.S. government

Chahine is currently a fugitive believed to be in Lebanon. He, along with Prouty’s sister and others, was charged in 2006 by the U.S. attorney in Detroit with tax evasion in connection with a scheme to conceal more than $20 million in cash received by La Shish restaurants in suburban Detroit and to route funds to persons in Lebanon with links to Hezbollah.

Moreover, as she was moving between agencies in 2003, Prouty accessed the FBI’s Automated Case Support system and obtained information on investigations into Hezbollah being conducted by the FBI’s Detroit Field Office.

National security experts say the combination of her being at one of the CIA’s most sensitive stations, working on some of the agencies' most sensitive cases, and having her relatives under investigation put her in a vulnerable position — and make the potential damage she could have caused far greater than either the FBI or CIA has admitted.

Roger Cressey, an NBC News analyst and former deputy director of counterterrorism at the National Security Council, says it never should have happened.

“The issue is that she had access to very sensitive information regardless of where she was in the hierarchy,” said Cressey. “Because she was able to interview high-value targets, that put her in a very unique position. So if she therefore shared that information, it could have cost major damage to our nation’s security.”

Officials tell NBC News that the time she fell under investigation in 2006, she was studying Farsi, the national language of Iran.

A senior U.S. official familiar with the case says there is no evidence she was a spy and noted that the CIA and FBI have a good record in prosecuting spies, particularly in their own agencies. He says her role was limited.

“This is not John Dillinger or Reilly Ace of Spies,” said the official. “She took an illegal shortcut to the American dream, then she made some inappropriate computer searches.  At this point, there is no reason to treat this as a counterintelligence case.  There is NO allegation she had ever ties to Hezbollah.  You can’t let suspicions get ahead of the facts.”

Prouty has agreed to submit to lie detector tests as the CIA assesses the damage.