Monday, July 26, 2010


It may be the biggest dump of sensitive government documents since the Pentagon Papers. WikiLeaks, the site which encourages the unauthorized disclosure of classified information, has begun its "release" of more than 90,000 secret documents on the war in Afghanistan.

And, based on what we've seen so far, it's something of a companion piece to last week's much-hyped Washington Post series on "Top Secret America." As we noted at the time, the WaPo series was more of a marketing than a journalistic triumph, cobbling together information that already existed in various, unclassified corporate reports and government databases.

While the info released by WikiLeaks is, indeed, classified, much of it is pedestrian in nature. The New York Times, which was granted early access to the material (along with the U.K. Guardian and Der Spiegel) describes it as an "unvarnished," ground-level view of the war that is "much bleaker" than higher-level government assessments.

According to the Times, the treasure-trove of classified documents offers new, previously-undisclosed revelations about the war and its conduct. But a review of that list leaves us underwhelmed; individuals with a military or intel background (or for that matter, readers of the Longwar Journal and other defense blogs) have some familiarity with these claims, listed below (our comments, in italics, follows each "disclosure) .

The Taliban have used portable heat-seeking missiles against allied aircraft, a fact that has not been publicly disclosed by the military. This type of weapon helped the Afghan mujahedeen defeat the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. Duh...literally hundreds of shoulder-fired SAMs were left behind after the Soviet-Afghan war, and thousands more have found their way into the country since 2001. The real story here is the Taliban's inability to employ these weapons effectively; MANPADS that brought the Soviet air force to its knees in the 1980s have been tactically inconsequential in the current conflict, a testament to our tactics , constantly-improving infrared counter-measures and poor training for insurgent gunners.

Secret commando units like Task Force 373 — a classified group of Army and Navy special operatives — work from a “capture/kill list” of about 70 top insurgent commanders. These missions, which have been stepped up under the Obama administration, claim notable successes, but have sometimes gone wrong, killing civilians and stoking Afghan resentment. True, much of TF 373's work is classified, but the unit's existence is well-known; we found references to the SOF organization as far back as three years ago, when retired General Barry McCaffrey wrote about their Iraq operations in the Washington Post. With Iraq largely stabiliized, it only makes sense that TF 373 (and similar units) would shift their focus to Afghanistan, and the elimination of bad guys in that country.

The military employs more and more drone aircraft to survey the battlefield and strike targets in Afghanistan, although their performance is less impressive than officially portrayed. Some crash or collide, forcing American troops to undertake risky retrieval missions before the Taliban can claim the drone’s weaponry. The push for more drones over Afghanistan has been extensively reported by Air Force Times and other military publications; in fact, the service's inability to field enough drones created something of a rift between the USAF and Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Likewise, the effort to recover downed drones may be under-publicized, but it is hardly unknown.

The Central Intelligence Agency has expanded paramilitary operations inside Afghanistan. The units launch ambushes, order airstrikes and conduct night raids. From 2001 to 2008, the C.I.A. paid the budget of Afghanistan’s spy agency and ran it as a virtual subsidiary. SOP for the Langley crew since Vietnam.

It's also worth noting that none of the documents we've reviewed so far could be considered "finished" intelligence--information that has been thoroughly researched, analyzed and vetted. Indeed, most of the WikiLeaks material could be considered the intel equivalent of a rough draft--operational-level intelligence summaries, prepared by officers in the field. In most cases, the assessments offer information obtained from informants, or through the capture of Taliban documents or prisoners. Sometimes, the information proved accurate; on other occasions, tips provided were either inaccurate, or (perhaps) an enemy attempt at disinformation.

Both the Pentagon and the White House have expressed anger over the documents' release--as they should. They are also correct in observing that many of the reports represent little more than a snapshot in time, at a particular geographic location. Even the Times had to admit that the leaked material does not contradict official views of the war. If the information seems a bit "grittier," well, that tends to happen as you get closer to the battlefield.

Why release the documents? WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange claims the reports will show "more pervasive violence" in Afghanistan than the military or the press had previously reported. He also believes the documents will reveal "war crimes" committed by U.S. and NATO forces, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of Afghan civilians.

But some of those claims sound specious, at best. In one document reprinted by the Times, an airstrike is ordered against two fuel trucks stolen by insurgents. Before USAF F-15Es drop their guided bombs, American forces in the area determined that no civilians were present. After the attack, one of the F-15s counted at least 56 dead insurgents in the area, with 14 more attempting to flee the scene.

A few hours later, the Taliban claimed that most of the dead were civilians, who were invited to take fuel from the stolen trucks. In other words, the enemy engineered the event, stealing fuel tankers that would almost certainly be targeted by coalition forces. The civilian deaths were certainly a tragedy, but they could also be blamed on the fog of war, and the willingness of enemy forces to use innocent civilians for their own purposes.

As for the massive "disclosure" of classified material, Mr. Assagne clearly deserves no brownie points. His current moment in the media spotlight was arranged by Army Private Bradley Manning, an intelligence specialist who allegedly downloaded the documents and transmitted them to WikiLeaks. For his trouble, Private Manning will spend years in a federal prison. While refusing to confirm that Manning was his source, Assagne has offered to help pay for his legal defense. How touching.

We find it interesting--but hardly surprising--that most of the documents were generated during the Bush era. True, Mr. Bush ran the war effort for almost nine years, but the Obama team has generated a lot of paperwork on the conflict over the past 18 months or so. Yet, relatively few documents from that period are represented in what has been released so far. In leftist terms, that's a two-fer: expose alleged atrocities in the Afghan War, while linking them (by virtue of time) to their favorite bogeyman, George W. Bush.

While Private Manning was the likely source for the massive leak, there are still unanswered questions about his large-scale download of the material. During our last gigs as intelligence specialists, it was impossible to download material from SIPRNET (the government's SECRET-level intelligence intranet), to such storage devices as flash drives, DVDs, or other media. In fact, at the organization where we worked, the transfer of classified material to those devices was handled by a special IT shop, and the number and type of authorized media was carefully noted, along with the files they contained.

Yet, Manning was apparently free to download reams of classified documents, and eventually transferred them to WikiLeaks. The fact he got them out of his work area is unsurprising (believe it or not, searches of individuals leaving intel vaults or SCIFs is extremely rare); but it is baffling that Manning's SIPRNET system allowed him to download files--at will--to external storage devices.

We're guessing that Manning's old outfit is looking for a new security manager, too. Maybe Julian Assagne will ante up for that individual as well. Allowing the wholesale theft of classified documents on your watch is not conducive to a long-term intelligence career. At the very least, those security officials are now looking at non-judicial punishment--or worse--for their failures. Perhaps Manning will thank them after he signs that eventual book-and-movie deal; or maybe Mr. Assagne will give them a "shot out" from the lecture circuit.


sargon said...

What I don't get is how Manning got a hold of State department traffic.

formersk9er said...

Back in the day when I was in the Air Force, we could not bring any computer media into the workplace. From what I have read of this case, this PVT brought in a r/w CD ROM with music and a label on it that he downloaded and copied the data to. First of all, why are soldiers allowed to bring music into a secure area and listen to it when they are supposed to be working? Is this so common place a practice that it did not raise suspicions?

tfhr said...


M3 message handling is a steady feed of traffic from many, many sources. I used to see DoS traffic on M3 SIPR all the time as I culled through thousands of pieces of message traffic looking for those related to terrorism in the PACOM AOR.

I had a unique role in that organization and the DoS intel reporting was very useful to me. Accounts from embassy RSO's were very valuable to me on force protection issues related to military personnel. But anyone with an M3 account could have been reading that traffic and everything else that got pushed into the system.


Over the years there has been a steady erosion of vigilance to make way for convenience and comfort.

I remember when you could not walk into a SCIF with a car alarm fob on your keys. The last time I went there, you could still take your cell phone into the DIA headquarters! It was laughable that they were comfortable with the notion that employees were directed not to use them in the building.

More often than not when one person picks up a land line in almost any SCIF - particularly on a watch floor - they will not warn others in the room and even if they do, people will continue to discuss classified within earshot. If that's not enough, people constantly think they're clever enough to "talk around" things they know to be classified at levels allowed on the particular phone they are using. It would just be too inconvenient to switch to the appropriate phone and resume the conversation.

Nobody should ever enter a SCIF with electronic media of any type unless it has been cleared by the SSO and they sure as hell should not leave with it or any type of hard copy without being inspected. That won't be convenient for anyone and some people will be uncomfortable. Don't like it? Find another line of work.

The slack regard for security in this "information age" is mind boggling. The next time you go to a concert, watch as security personnel search backpacks for cameras. Most SCIFs don't check people's bags for media, electronic devices, or even hardcopy. It's been years since I was subjected to even a random search.

I hope this will force some changes but I wouldn't bet on it.

TOF said...

WRT MANPADs, as they call them now, from what I've read, those Stinger missiles should have passed their "sell by date" a long time ago. That implies that whatever MANPADs the Taliban are using, they came from some place else.