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Ex-agent’s security breach detailed

Times Staff Writer

An illegal immigrant from Lebanon who became an agent for the FBI and CIA allegedly used her access to sensitive U.S. government secrets to help her brother-in-law, a suspected major fundraiser for the terrorist group Hezbollah, according to new details concerning a national security breach that emerged Wednesday.

In court documents and interviews, federal authorities said that as part of a criminal conspiracy, Nada Nadim Prouty, 37, illegally accessed top-secret FBI investigative files on five occasions and most likely shared the information with the suspected Hezbollah operative. When she pleaded guilty to unauthorized computer access and naturalization fraud charges three weeks ago, authorities revealed only that Prouty had accessed the FBI’s Hezbollah files once, and said nothing about her sharing information about ongoing investigations with anyone else.

On Wednesday, prosecutors said Prouty illegally accessed the FBI’s Hezbollah investigative files in 2002 and 2003, at a time when she was a Washington, D.C.-based FBI field agent who was not working Hezbollah cases. Prouty accessed them electronically, “without authorization and in excess of her authorized access,” the prosecutors said in a court filing.

At the time, her sister’s husband, Talal Khalil Chahine, 51, was under investigation by the FBI in Detroit for his suspected ties to Hezbollah. The Lebanon-based group was designated by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization in 1997.

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The Detroit suburb of Dearborn is home to the largest Lebanese community outside of Lebanon, and for years the FBI’s Detroit field office has had numerous investigations underway into Hezbollah’s fundraising network here. Authorities say the group is supported by donations from wealthy local supporters and a wide array of criminal activities.

Authorities now believe Prouty was illegally accessing the FBI files to determine for Chahine and perhaps others what the FBI knew about the group’s presence here, and that she accessed an investigative file on Chahine, according to the court filing and interviews. At the time, Chahine was suspected of raising large sums of money for Hezbollah within the local community and of meeting with top Hezbollah leaders in Lebanon.

Prouty’s lawyer, Thomas W. Cranmer, said he could not comment on the prosecutors’ allegations.

Chahine was not available for comment, but has denied wrongdoing in a statement to a local newspaper. He was indicted in 2005 for allegedly skimming millions of dollars in profits from his successful chain of Middle Eastern restaurants here and sending the money to Lebanon. He fled the country and is believed to be in Lebanon.

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Federal prosecutors and the FBI had no official comment on the disclosures, which were contained in a superseding grand jury indictment of Chahine.

Several federal law enforcement officials familiar with the case said Prouty’s actions were alarming, and that she essentially committed espionage on behalf of a terrorist organization by knowingly accessing and sharing internal FBI information on Hezbollah with Chahine at a time when she appeared to have known of his ties to the group.

One senior federal law enforcement official said an ongoing damage assessment focused on what information Prouty -- who started working for the FBI in 1999 and the CIA in 2003 -- passed onto Chahine and perhaps others with connections to Hezbollah here. Officials also are trying to determine whether the information undermined any of the FBI’s long-running investigations into the organization.

The Justice Department has formally accused Prouty of taking home classified information improperly, and the damage assessment focuses on whether any of those files pertained to Hezbollah and whether she shared them with Chahine, said the law enforcement official.

“The damage as we see it is that the information has been compromised and accessed unlawfully with bad intent,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.

Of particular concern: Prouty at least twice accessed case files that contained an identification number for a “classified human source of information” being used by the FBI in Hezbollah investigations, the court filing said. That means that she could have compromised an undercover informant or witness who was working with the FBI, according to the official.

As part of her plea, Prouty of Vienna, Va., is required to cooperate in ongoing investigations and submit to polygraph tests about her relationship with Chahine and other matters.

The federal law enforcement official and a second counter- terrorism official also disclosed that the FBI began investigating Prouty after agents began hearing that Chahine, an influential power broker in Dearborn, had an inside source at the FBI who was feeding him information about its investigations into his activities and into Hezbollah.

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Authorities said they knew about Prouty’s other security breaches before allowing her to negotiate a plea agreement, and did not seek more serious charges because they could not prove their allegations without compromising classified sources and methods. Also, they said, it appears that Prouty shared much of the information with her sister, perhaps out of concern for her and her husband, and that the sister in turn passed it on to Chahine.

When Prouty pleaded guilty Nov. 14, prosecutors said that her sister and Chahine had traveled to Lebanon together in August 2002 to attend a fundraising event where the keynote speakers were Hezbollah spiritual leader Sheikh Muhammed Hussein Fadlallah and Chahine.

The FBI said Chahine was there because he was a major fundraiser for the organization. Hezbollah is popular with many Lebanese Americans because of its humanitarian efforts and Middle East political activities .

Hezbollah also has been blamed for the deaths of more Americans than any other terrorist group besides Al Qaeda, including the bombing of a U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983 that killed 241 U.S. military personnel. The U.S. government has alleged that Fadlallah issued the fatwas authorizing the bombing and other attacks on Americans.

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josh.meyer@latimes.com


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