A Bad Day For U.S. Intelligence—In Afghanistan and Around The World: The Afghan WikiLeaks Scandalby Don on Jul. 28, 2010, under Uncategorized
Life just got a lot harder for American intelligence operatives. What’s worse: life just got a lot more dangerous for US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, our allies, the Iraqi and Afghan people…and us, here at home.
Apparently an American soldier downloaded thousands of intelligence reports and other military documents—many of them classified, virtually all of them sensitive in some way—and leaked them to WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks has now posted them for the world to see.
News media outlets have been scanning the documents and commenting on them all week. Initial reactions were pretty muted; most of the documents told us things about the war in Afghanistan that we already knew or suspected. (E.g., elements in Pakistan’s intelligence services are believed to be helping the Taliban in its fight against Afghan government and Coalition forces).
This report, though, by CBS News (hat tip to Hotair.com) brings up another, much more troubling and damaging aspect of this whole sorry affair. CBS News Online quotes this from a London Times article:
Hundreds of Afghan civilians who worked as informants for the U.S. military have been put at risk by WikiLeaks’ publication of more than 90,000 classified intelligence reports which name and in many cases locate the individuals, The Times newspaper reported Wednesday.
The article says, in spite of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s claim that sensitive information had been removed from the leaked documents, that reporters scanning the reports for just a couple hours found hundreds of Afghan names mentioned as aiding the U.S.-led war effort.
Here’s how that—the leaking of the names of Afghan sources—-is bad for U.S. intelligence.
The sources are now in danger.
“The leaks certainly have put in real risk and danger the lives and integrity of many Afghans,” a senior official at the Afghan foreign ministry told The Times on condition of anonymity….One former intelligence official told the paper that the Taliban could launch revenge attacks on “traitors” in the coming days.
Let’s not forget—these sources are everyday Afghans. They’re not government officials who work on protected compounds and travel with bodyguards. They’re shopkeepers and teachers and parents and schoolkids…you get the idea. (Notice that the “senior official at the Afghan foreign ministry” insisted on anonymity before he spoke—perhaps HE is scared).
It will be harder to get good “raw” information; that will result in less-useful intelligence.
You can’t make a good soup without good ingredients to put in it, no matter how good the recipe or high-quality the cookware. You can’t prepare a useful family budget if you don’t know your income streams or monthly expenses. Or, to put it another way, “garbage in, garbage out.”
Fort Huachuca trains hundreds of new intelligence analysts every year. They learn the latest questioning techniques and data analysis strategies. They use the best intelligence processing and data sharing systems the U.S. can provide.
But, if you don’t have good data to begin with, you won’t get a useful intelligence analysis at the end—-the kind of product that can help you identify threats before they can attack you or the people you’re trying to defend.
If Afghans feel that the U.S. military can’t protect their identity, they’ll keep silent. If foreign governments fear that the CIA and DOD can’t protect the sensitive data they share with us, then they won’t share. That’s bad—but it’s especially bad in the kind of war we’re fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I think it goes without saying that, there are vast differences between Iraqi and Afghan culture and U.S. culture. Then, throw in the language differences on top of that.
How many Americans grew up speaking Dari, one of the two official Afghan languages? I’d never even heard of the Dari language before I joined the Army. The Army or the CIA can send someone to school to learn Dari, at a basic level. But, what are the chances that they’ll appreciate all the dialects, slang and other nuances of the language the way a native would? The top graduate from the military’s Defense Language Institute will most likely miss things that an interpreter or source, recruited from the local area, will catch.
There’s no substitute for getting your tips, your raw information from local sources. That’s especially true when American troops are fighting in parts of the world that are so foreign to us (like, say, Afghanistan), they might as well be on another planet.
You also want LOTS of local sources to choose from. The more sources providing you information, the more reports you have to compare against each other. The more data points you have to work with, the more likely it is that you’ll see trends emerging as sources agree with each other. It’s also easier to identify outliers or anomalies in your data. Lastly, it’s easier for an Human Intelligence (HUMINT) team to put together a pool of high-quality informants if they have a lot of people to choose from, as opposed to just a few. Bottom line: you want LOTS of people to be willing to give you information. If, instead, only a few people are brave enough to come forward and be sources, you run an elevated risk of accepting bad information as good, and falling prey to an imposter who’s working for the other side.
Depending on how this plays out, expect less raw data to come in from local sources and friendly government intelligence agencies. That will make it harder to identify threats, both on the battlefield and here at home, before they actually jump up and bite us.
Remember the movie Forrest Gump? (I hope I’m not dating myself here). Forrest earned the Medal of Honor for his heroism in a jungle firefight. The firefight began when Forrest’s patrol stumbled on an enemy position. The patrol first knew they’d encountered the enemy when a shot rang out and an American soldier fell to the ground.
That’s not how you want to find the enemy. Ideally, locals will tell you where the enemy is. But, if the locals (or foreign governments) feel you can’t protect the identities of informants, many will just keep quiet, and silently watch you walk into trouble. (Or, watch trouble sneak up on you.)