Intelligence: Lost and Found Opportunities

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November 26, 2007: The revelation that American forces had discovered a map drawn by terrorist leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi, prior to the surge offensive, provides part of the explanation for the success of the surge. This story not only has important implications for the war in Iraq, but it also is a good explanation for why intelligence methods and sources need to be protected from exposure.

In essence, the surge succeeded because the United States was able to keep quiet that they had seized this valuable map. If the terrorists knew that this material was in American hands, they would have changed their plans, and positions. Instead, they had no clue that the Americans knew where they were, and were rounded up and taken down.

In the larger-scale war on terror, there have been leaks that have compromised intelligence. Perhaps the most famous of these leaks was the New York Times article concerning the NSA's efforts to listen in on terrorist conversations. The result was a major firestorm. While some were upset that a classified program was revealed, others were upset that the NSA was listening in on phone conversations (never mind that there was no credible evidence of abuse). The result was lawfare targeting technical intelligence, and very heated debate.

The problem with that is that leaks – and the ensuing controversy – tend to let people know they are being listened to. Once a person, group, or country find out that they are of interest to an intelligence agency, two things happen. First, they tend to become very careful with regards to communications – they take steps to throw off surveillance efforts, and they will even shift to means that cannot be intercepted (like couriers or flying for face-to-face meetings). Al Qaeda has done this in the past. Second, they begin to wonder how the information is acquired – and try to cut off the flow. If they find out enough of what an intelligence agency knows (usually through a process of elimination), they will have an idea of who might be a source. If the intelligence service is lucky, they can extract the compromised source, but they lose the ability to get future information. If said source is caught, he is in for a very unpleasant end if he gets caught.

In the case of the map, this was one case where that calculus wasn't in play as much. The "Zarqawi map" was acquired in a raid. It's not the first time a document that fell into enemy hands created problems – in 1862, a misplaced order compromised Robert E. Lee's first invasion of the north and led to the Battle of Antietam. In other cases, captured documents have provided information on a tactical or operational level (like minefield locations, the position of artillery units, or codebooks).

Still, this incident demonstrates what can be done if intelligence programs are kept secure. The results can be amazing. On the other hand, the price of compromised intelligence will be paid down the road in the lives of people who just happen to be around when the next attack hits, which could be an ambush of troops on an operation. The intelligence advantage is a huge one, and the United States needs to maintain it. In this case, the advantage has done significant damage to the insurgency. – Harold C. Hutchison (haroldc.hutchison@gmail.com)

 


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