The C.I.A. is collecting information on senior Hamas leaders and the location of hostages in Gaza, and is providing that intelligence to Israel as it carries out its war in the enclave, according to U.S. officials.
A new task force assembled in the days after the Hamas-led Oct. 7 terror attacks on Israel, in which 1,200 people were killed and some 240 taken hostage back in Gaza, has uncovered information on Hamas’s top leaders, according to U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence assessments.
Immediately after the Oct. 7 attack, Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, sent a memo to the intelligence agencies and Defense Department ordering the task force’s creation and directing increased intelligence collection on Hamas’ leadership, officials said.
The establishment of the task force has not created any new legal authorities, but the White House raised the priority of collecting intelligence on Hamas.
It is not clear how valuable the information has been to Israel, though none of the most senior leaders of Hamas has been captured or killed. The United States is not providing Israel with intelligence on low or midlevel Hamas operatives.
Israel had estimated before Oct. 7 that Hamas had 20,000 to 25,000 fighters. By the end of 2023, Israel had told American officials they believed they had killed roughly a third of that force.
Some American officials believe targeting low-level Hamas members is misguided because they can be easily replaced and because of the unwarranted risk to civilians. They have also said the Israeli military bombing campaign in Gaza — which according to Gaza’s Health Ministry has killed some 23,000 Palestinians, mostly civilians — could end up replenishing Hamas’s bench of fighters.
But eliminating Hamas’s strategic military leadership is another matter. Israel would score a major victory if it kills or captures Yahya Sinwar, believed to be an architect of the Oct. 7 attack, or Mohammed Deif, the commander of Hamas’s military wing. Such an operational success would likely give Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu more latitude with the Israeli public to wind down the military campaign in Gaza.
Targeting Mr. Sinwar is not simply a matter of finding him. Mr. Sinwar is believed to be hiding in the deepest part of the tunnel network under Khan Younis in southern Gaza, according to U.S. officials. But he is also believed to be surrounded by hostages and using them as human shields, vastly complicating a military operation to capture or kill him.
The United States provided no intelligence for Israel’s Jan. 2 strike in a Beirut suburb that killed Saleh al-Arouri, a deputy Hamas leader, U.S. officials said. That strike relied on information collected by Israel on Mr. al-Arouri’s location.
The United States has also stepped up collection on Hamas with more drone flights over Gaza and has increased its efforts to intercept communications among Hamas officials.
A spokeswoman for the C.I.A. declined to comment on the task force or any intelligence provided to Israel.
The creation of the C.I.A. task force comes as America’s spy agencies have raised the priority of intelligence collection on Hamas.
Before the Oct. 7 attack, Hamas was a level four priority, meaning few resources were dedicated to collecting intelligence on the group. Since then, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which helps oversee intelligence priorities, has raised Hamas to a level two priority, according to U.S. officials. Level one, on which the vast majority of intelligence resources are expended, is reserved for international adversaries that could pose a more direct threat to the United States, including China, Russia, North Korea and Iran.
Raising the priority level provides additional funding for intelligence collection and most likely increases the range and volume of information that the C.I.A. tries to collect on Hamas, which the United States has designated a terror organization.
The shift in priority has also opened up new money for the C.I.A. to develop human sources, according to current and former officials. But with both physical access to and regular communication with Gaza extremely difficult, it will take time to develop new sources.
The U.S. military has been pushing Israel to retool its military campaign to focus on killing or capturing top leaders, rather than the broader strikes that have resulted in huge numbers of civilian casualties in Gaza. Gen. Michael Erik Kurilla, the head of U.S. Central Command, has visited Israel at least twice since Oct. 7, and other American generals have gone to Israel to advise officials there to adopt a more targeted plan focused on killing senior leaders.
Before Oct. 7, the United States generally relied on Israel for collecting most intelligence on Hamas, according to U.S. officials.
For Israel, Hamas was a far more important threat, and therefore a top intelligence priority.
But the Oct. 7 attack demonstrated that Israel’s intelligence collection on Hamas had significant weaknesses. American officials have also raised questions about what Israel shared with the United States.
In 2022, Israel collected intelligence that showed Hamas had developed an elaborate plan for a multiwave attack on Israel, code named Jericho Wall. But the information was not shared widely within Israel or with the United States after some Israeli intelligence officials assessed that the plan was aspirational and that Hamas did not have the capability of carrying it out at the time.
Locating the hostages, and developing information about their physical and mental conditions, is also a priority of the new task force. William J. Burns, the C.I.A. director, has been working with David Barnea, the chief of Israel’s Mossad spy agency, to negotiate their release.
In November, 109 hostages were released in return for Palestinian prisoners and a pause in the fighting thanks to U.S., Qatari and Egyptian mediation. About 130 hostages are believed to remain in captivity in Gaza. The United States and Israel are hoping for another exchange, but Hamas has insisted that any further hostage releases only be done in connection with a permanent cease-fire.
The United States has not negotiated directly with Hamas. Instead Mr. Burns and Mr. Barnea have been speaking with Qatari officials, who in turn negotiate with Hamas’s political leadership. Israel appears not to be targeting political leaders of Hamas, who are critical to the negotiations on hostage releases.
American special operations forces, which were in Israel for training exercises before Oct. 7, have remained there to work on the hostage issue.
The F.B.I. and Justice Department have also stepped up their efforts against Hamas by investigating Americans sending money to the group.