WASHINGTON -- Iranian-backed Hezbollah agents, not al Qaeda operatives, may pose the greatest threat on U.S. soil as tensions over Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program ratchet up, according to the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security.
"As Iran moves closer to nuclear weapons and there is increasing concern over war between Iran and Israel, we must also focus on Iran's secret operatives and their number one terrorist proxy force, Hezbollah, which we know is in America," said New York Rep. Peter King at a Wednesday hearing of his committee.
The hearing, which featured former government officials and the director of intelligence analysis for the New York Police Department, follows a foiled plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C., and testimony by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in late January that Iran's leaders are "more willing to conduct an attack inside the United States in response to real or perceived U.S. actions that threaten the regime."
Opening the hearing, King said, "We have a duty to prepare for the worst," warning there may be hundreds of Hezbollah operatives in the United States, including 84 Iranian diplomats at the United Nations and in Washington who, "it must be presumed, are intelligence officers."
But Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said he was concerned that the testimony he was about to hear was based on outdated information and not current intelligence. He noted that "no current federal officials" were asked to testify on Wednesday.
"A word of caution is in order," Thompson said. "When we examine our relationship with another country, we cannot look at any particular moment in time and pretend that it tells the whole story. We cannot view the politics, history and culture of any other country clearly by seeing a snapshot version."
Referencing Clapper's earlier testimony, Thompson said the director of national intelligence should be called in for a classified hearing, but added, "We should not engage in a public discussion that creates fear and delivers misinformation."
King rejected the Democrat's objections. "We're not focusing on foreign policy," he said. "We're talking about an internal threat to this country."
Most of the testimony -- which came from former officials at the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and Treasury, among others -- concerned Iranian-linked attacks in other countries that dated back decades in some cases. However, Mitchell Silber, head of the NYPD intelligence unit that has come under fire for spying on the city's Muslim community, said that between 2002 and 2010 his agency and federal authorities detected "at least six events involving Iranian diplomatic personnel that we struggle to categorize as anything other than hostile reconnaissance of New York City."
The suspicious events, some of them publicly revealed for the first time, involved security guards at the Permanent Mission of Iran to the United Nations and Iranian diplomats stationed in New York. Among the cases Silber cited:
- On Nov. 16, 2003, at 2 a.m., uniformed NYPD officers on a subway train observed two men filming the train tracks. The men, who initially claimed diplomatic immunity, were security guards at the Iranian Mission who had recently arrived in New York.
- In May 2004, despite warnings from the State Department, two more Iranian Mission security guards were observed videotaping infrastructure, public transportation and New York City landmarks. A month later, the guards were expelled by the United States, Silber said, for "engaging in activities that were not consistent with their duties," or spying.
- In May 2005, six individuals "associated with the Government of Iran" were interviewed by the NYPD after a call to a city hot line reported suspicious behavior. The individuals on a sightseeing cruise were reportedly photographing and videotaping landmarks such as the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges as well as "reportedly speaking on their cellphones in an unusual manner." One of the individuals worked at the Iranian Mission while the other five had diplomatic immunity based on their positions within the Iranian government. They were later released.
- In September 2008, during the U.N. General Assembly, several members of the Iranian delegation were seen taking photos of railroad tracks inside Grand Central Station. After questioning, they were "released without incident."
- In September 2010, again during the U.N. General Assembly, federal air marshals reported suspicious behavior at the Wall Street Heliport, where four people were seen taking "still photos and videotaping the water line and structural area of the heliport landing pad" from a nearby parking lot. The four produced press cards showing they worked for the Iran Broadcasting Co. and were released.
Although authorities could link none of the incidents to actual plots, "Iran has a proven record of using its official presence in a foreign city to coordinate attacks, which are then carried out by Hezbollah agents from abroad, often leveraging the local community -- whether wittingly or not -- as facilitators," Silber testified.