U.S. on guard against possible Iran plots
The FBI is pulling out all the stops on Iran. A classified nationwide conference will be held Thursday to share the assessment of the intelligence community that an attack by Iranian agents, or even a surrogate group such as Hezbollah, may be more likely in the event of an Israeli air strike on suspected Iranian nuclear facilities.
The secure video teleconference, led by FBI Assistant Director Ralph Boelter, the Bureau's top counterterrorism official, will be a 90-minute meeting with each of the 56 field offices.
The second part of the agenda is to poll the Special Agents in-Charge of those offices to report on what operations they are running covering suspected Iranian agents, Hezbollah investigations and confidential sources that may yield valuable intelligence. They are also being asked to make sure their local police departments are attuned to the threat and focused on suspicious activity around government buildings, Israeli consulates in major cities and prominent Jewish organizations.
The increased concern that is driving this "leave no stone unturned" strategy has emerged from two developments: first, the assessment that Iran has increased surveillance of potential U.S. targets overseas; second, that Iran is suspected of being behind what appears to be a series of coordinated attacks against Israeli targets last week.
In India, the wife of an Israeli military attache was wounded in a car bomb. In Georgia, and Thailand, suspected Iranian agents were taken into custody. One Iranian suspect in Bangkok was severely wounded when the bomb he was carrying detonated prematurely.
In Azerbaijan, police broke up a plot in January that involved a group of Iranian suspects working with a local crime boss to target Israeli locations and victims. Police say the recovered diagrams, drawings, photos and dossiers of the targets along with a sniper rifle with a telescopic sight.
Intelligence analysts agree that the foreign attacks targeting Israelis are almost certainly in retaliation for a series of assassinations of Iranian scientist working for that country's suspected nuclear weapons program. Iran has accused Israel and the United Sates of being behind the attacks.
The last scientist to be killed was blown up by a car bomb that was stuck to his car by a passing motorcycle. It was the exact same technique that was used in the attack against the Israeli attache's wife in India last week.
"They are trying to be very clear with the Israelis that two can play this game," said one U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Iran has denied involvement in any of the attacks against Israeli diplomats, and has suggested that Israel itself is to blame.
Mohammad Khazaee, Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, wrote in a letter to Security Council President Kodjo Menan that Israel "has resorted in masterminding camouflaged assassination attempts and acts of terrorism or more specifically the so-called 'false flag operations,' and attributing them to others."
While this has unfolded largely as a proxy war between Israel and Iran, the concern over a potential strike against the U.S. is one that was recently revised. On February 16, Director of National Intelligence General James Clapper said in testimony submitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee that a recent plot broken up the FBI targeting the Saudi ambassador for assassination in downtown Washington D.C. restaurant was a game-changer.
Clapper said the plot "shows that some Iranian officials - probably including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei - have changed their calculus and are now more willing to conduct an attack in the United States in response to real or perceived U.S. actions that threaten the regime. We are also concerned about Iranian plotting against U.S. or allied interests overseas."
Clapper also said that the economic sanctions and condemnations from the U.N. may be a factor in whether Iran would want to absorb the cost of going forward with an attack on U.S. soil.
While Israel has two intelligence agencies and one national police force, one of the challenges for the United States is coordinating the efforts against a single target across 16 intelligence agencies and 18,000 police departments. Coordination on terrorism issues is run through the National Counter Terrorism Center, (NCTC) a modern X-shaped complex in Northern Virginia where representatives from all agencies are assigned and have access to their databases.
The office of the Director of National Intelligence also has an Iran mission manager whose job it is to coordinate the intelligence community's efforts on Iran across an array of issues.
"When you have Iranian-backed terrorist groups, but also Iranian intelligence operatives from the elite Quds force, and they are also working with Mexican drug cartels and Thai crime bosses, you have a number of intelligence streams to tap," said a former intelligence official who asked to remain anonymous because he still consults with government agencies.
Tom Betro, the former Director of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) said that as tensions rise, it is likely that Iranian operations in the proxy war being carried out in diverse countries across the globe will increase.
"That's the fear. The fear is that would be the - the type of attack we'd see increasing in frequency - and in seriousness - as leading up to a conflict," he said.
And Betro believes that in the event of an Israeli airstrike on Iran, the odds of an attack against the U.S. for its long support of Israel increases.
"Yes, I could see them striking on U.S. soil. They do have a network of surrogate groups. They have provided material support, assuming that support is already in place. I think they know, psychologically, the impact that an attack on U.S. soil would have on our country and on our leadership."
Betro, who led NCIS operations in the investigation of al Qaida's attack on the USS Cole in Yemen and investigations into terrorist plots against naval bases overseas, was part of an intelligence community task force that targeted Iraq's intelligence services. Betro says Iran, because its intelligence operations are larger and use more outside groups to carry out operations, will be a hard target to collect against.
"Quite frankly we - we don't have as much intelligence about their networks as we would've had against the Iraqis," Betro said. "I would say that the urgency, because of that type of warfare, that unconventional warfare, which I think everyone would agree is clearly part of Iran's kind of battle plan ... it's much more important to aggressively disrupt those activities."