Lebanon-born Nada Nadim Prouty, 37, a resident of Vienna, Va., pleaded guilty at a short hearing in U.S. District Court in Detroit to charges of fraudulently obtaining U.S. citizenship by paying for a sham marriage; unlawfully accessing a federal computer system; and conspiracy to defraud the United States, according to the Justice Department. The three counts were unsealed for the first time at the hearing.
The case raises significant concerns about the FBI and CIA background check and internal security regimes, especially at a time when both agencies are under pressure to hire more first- and second-generation Americans to make better use of the cultural and linguistic skills available in the melting-pot nation.
Under Prouty's plea agreement, she faces less than a year in jail, but will be stripped of her U.S. citizenship. After any jail time, she will serve a period of probation under the supervision of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but will not be deported, as is usual in such cases.
"A lot of sensitive factors went into that decision," U.S. Department of Justice spokesman Dean Boyd told United Press International, declining to comment further.
A U.S. intelligence official authorized to speak to the news media played down the possible security implications of the case. Prouty had been a "midlevel operations officer" at the agency and joined in 2003, the official said.
By that time her sister, Elfat el-Aouar, had been married for three years to Talal Khalil Chahine, owner of a popular Michigan chain of Middle Eastern restaurants.
In August 2002, nearly a year before Prouty joined the CIA, the agreement says, Chahine was a keynote speaker at a Beirut fundraising dinner alongside Hezbollah's spiritual leader, Sheik Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, listed by the U.S. Treasury as a specially designated global terrorist entity. His wife, Prouty's sister, also attended the dinner.
"There's no reason at this point to treat this as a counter-intelligence case," said the intelligence official, who has been briefed on the case. "There's no allegation that she herself had anything to do with Hezbollah."
"It's easy to hype this stuff," the official said. "You can't let suspicion get ahead of the facts."
Chahine, a fugitive, faces two federal indictments, said Gina Balaya, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Detroit: multimillion-dollar tax-evasion charges filed last year and allegations he was part of an immigration fraud ring.
She said Chahine had not been charged with any terrorism-related offence.
FBI spokesman Steven Kodak said that Prouty "was given a complete background check by the standards of the day," which was before internal security at the bureau was tightened in the wake of the Robert Hanssen case.
Kodak said the agents doing the background checks on Prouty had interviewed the man she paid to marry her as a former spouse but had relied on the Immigration and Naturalization Service to assure the validity of the marriage and would not necessarily have been looking for immigration law-based red flags.
"The document we got from her was valid," he said of Prouty's naturalization certificate. "She obtained it fraudulently from the INS."
In turn, the U.S. intelligence official said, "It looks like the CIA may have been a little too trusting of the FBI's ability to carry out a background check, which would have covered the years she came to the United States and was naturalized."
"That won't happen again," the official concluded.
Officials said she had been polygraphed as part of her background check by both the FBI and the CIA and showed no signs of deception.
The plea agreement, which Prouty signed last week, says that, in 1990 in Michigan, she paid a U.S. citizen to undergo a sham marriage with her after overstaying a student visa. Because it mentions a number of other conspirators, the agreement suggests that the deal was part of a fraud ring.
She then used the marriage as the basis for a fraudulent naturalization application that resulted in her becoming a U.S. citizen in 1994, while she was working as a waitress for Chahine.
Last month an immigration fraud conspiracy indictment filed by federal prosecutors in Michigan accused Chahine of "conspiring to defraud the United States by obtaining immigration benefits, including permanent resident status, through the use of false marriages arranged with other (of his) employees who were U.S. citizens."
In April 1999, the agreement says, Prouty joined the FBI as a special agent, was granted a security clearance and assigned to the bureau's Washington Field Office to work on a team investigating crimes against U.S. persons overseas.
The following year, a month after her sister's marriage to Chahine, Prouty used the FBI's computer files, the Automated Case System, to find out if there were investigations touching on herself, her sister or Chahine.
In June 2003 Prouty accessed the FBI's Automated Case System again and obtained information from a national security investigation into Hezbollah that was being conducted by the bureau's Detroit Field Office.
That same month she started work at the CIA.
Balaya, the spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Detroit, said that Prouty had come to the attention of federal authorities in December 2005 during their investigations into Chahine.