The agent with a secret past
An illegal immigrant from Lebanon with relatives linked to the militant Islamic group Hezbollah paid a U.S. citizen to marry her and then lied her way through national security background checks to become an agent for the FBI and the CIA. She used her position to secretly access government computers for information about her relatives and a U.S. investigation into the group, authorities said Tuesday.
Nada Nadim Prouty, a 37-year-old Lebanese national, pleaded guilty to conspiracy, unauthorized computer access and naturalization fraud in federal court in Detroit and agreed to cooperate with authorities in an ongoing investigation into the security breaches.
Prouty’s case is a major embarrassment for the FBI and the CIA, which supposedly had tightened their personnel screening and monitoring after CIA officer Aldrich H. Ames and FBI Special Agent Robert Hanssen were caught selling secrets to foreign governments. But officials emphasized that the investigation had not uncovered any evidence that Prouty gave Hezbollah or its operatives classified information.
Law enforcement officials said a multi-agency probe was underway to determine how the breaches occurred, what Prouty may have done with the information she accessed from FBI computers, and whether she improperly obtained information from the CIA.
“It is hard to imagine a greater threat than the situation where a foreign national uses fraud to attain citizenship and then, based on that fraud, insinuates herself into a sensitive position in the U.S. government,” U.S. Atty. Stephen J. Murphy in Detroit said in a statement.
In her signed plea agreement, Prouty admitted to accessing FBI computer files on Hezbollah first in 2000 and again in 2003, when she accessed case files on a top-secret national security investigation into the militant group that the FBI was conducting.
At the time, Prouty’s brother-in-law, who owned a Detroit restaurant where Prouty once worked as a waitress, was suspected of having strong ties to senior Hezbollah officials in Lebanon, where the group is headquartered.
Prouty also was accused of improperly taking classified information home while at the FBI, and of working with other Lebanese nationals in what appeared to be a conspiracy to gain U.S. citizenship through fraudulent marriages and then get government law enforcement, intelligence and military jobs with security clearances.
The ongoing investigation is being conducted by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau, with assistance from the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service and the Internal Revenue Service, officials said. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said it was too early to say what kind of security breaches might have been involved.
Prouty faces a maximum penalty of 16 years in prison and $600,000 in fines, and loss of her U.S. citizenship. But under the terms of the plea deal, she faces only six to 12 months if she cooperates fully.
“I’m not sure this speaks tremendously well of either agency,” one U.S. official who is familiar with the case said of the FBI and the CIA.
“But the fact of the matter is that this is a case of naturalization fraud. At this point, there is no reason to treat this as a counter-intelligence case,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the case.
Officials would not say how Prouty’s scheme was exposed. Willie T. Hulon, executive assistant director of the FBI’s National Security Branch, said the bureau became aware of Prouty’s activities in December 2005 and moved to address any further damage. “We continue to evaluate our security practices and will make any necessary changes,” Hulon said in a statement.
CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano said the agency was cooperating with the investigation. “The naturalization issue occurred well before she was hired by the bureau” and 13 years before she joined the CIA, he said.
Attempts to reach Prouty’s lawyer Thomas W. Cranmer were unsuccessful. A relative of Prouty, reached by phone from California, said Tuesday night that she could not discuss the case or anything about the former CIA officer.
To join the FBI and CIA, Prouty had to be a U.S. citizen and undergo a background check. Officials at both agencies insisted that thorough background checks had been done. FBI spokesman Stephen Kodak said agents interviewed family, friends and associates in the U.S. and Lebanon to make sure Prouty did not pose a security risk, and that Prouty passed a polygraph test.
“We relied on her legitimate naturalization documents. What the investigation revealed was that those naturalization papers were obtained through a long-term pattern of fraudulent claims,” Kodak said. “Do additional measures need to be implemented? Possibly.”
Prouty, who also goes by several other names, was described in court papers as a resident of Vienna, Va., who resigned from the CIA in recent weeks as part of the plea agreement.
At the CIA, Prouty was a midlevel operations officer who used her Lebanese background and language skills to work on issues focusing on the Middle East, according to the knowledgeable U.S. official. He added that he was unaware of any instances in which she was involved in gathering intelligence on Hezbollah. “And there has been no allegation that she ever had ties to Hezbollah,” the U.S. official said in an assessment that was echoed by the federal law enforcement officials.
The U.S. government has designated Hezbollah, also known as the “Party of God,” as a global terrorist organization. The Shiite group also has financial ties and other links to Iran.
Hezbollah also has had a significant fundraising presence in the U.S., particularly within large Middle Eastern enclaves in cities such as Detroit and Dearborn, Mich.
Prouty came to one of those enclaves in Michigan in 1989 on a one-year, non-immigrant student visa. After overstaying her visa, she obtained a fraudulent marriage in 1990 by paying an unemployed U.S. citizen in Detroit to marry her, the court records state.
From there, Prouty lied her way into obtaining U.S. citizenship, and worked as a waitress and hostess for a Middle Eastern restaurant chain called La Shish Inc. that was owned by suspected Hezbollah operative Talal Khalil Chahine. Chahine even wrote a letter for submission into Prouty’s immigration file attesting to the validity of Prouty’s false marriage, the court papers said.
In 1999, Prouty was hired by the FBI as a sworn agent and sent to its Washington field office, where she worked on a squad that investigates crimes against citizens working overseas. She was not assigned to work on investigations involving Hezbollah, the FBI said.
The next year, Prouty’s sister, Elfat El Aouar, married Chahine. And less than a month later, Prouty accessed the FBI case management system “without authorization, and beyond her authorized access” to query her own name and that of her sister and Chahine. She also began taking “an unknown quantity” of classified information home with her, against FBI policy, the court records state.
In August 2002, Prouty’s sister and Chahine attended a fundraising event in Lebanon where the keynote speakers were Hezbollah leader Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah and Chahine himself.
The next summer, Prouty illegally accessed the FBI computers again. This time, she accessed an automated case system for information about a national security investigation into Hezbollah that was being conducted by the FBI’s Detroit field office, the court records show.
Later that year, Prouty joined the CIA, where she remained until earlier this month.
The court papers unsealed Tuesday provide details about Prouty and her systematic efforts to become a U.S. citizen and get jobs at the FBI and the CIA. But the papers and interviews with officials at the various agencies also left many questions unanswered.
One revolves around Chahine’s time in the U.S. and his connections to Hezbollah and to Prouty.
Now a fugitive believed to be in Lebanon, Chahine was charged in Michigan in 2006, along with Prouty’s sister and others, with tax evasion in connection with an alleged scheme to conceal more than $20 million in cash received by La Shish restaurants and to route funds to Lebanon, according to a Justice Department statement.
Last month, Chahine was also charged, along with a senior official from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau in Detroit and others, in a bribery and extortion conspiracy in which federal immigration benefits were allegedly awarded to illegal immigrants in exchange for money, the Justice Department said.