Thursday, February 12, 2015

Loose Lips (You Know the Rest)

The gang at The New York Times is back again, with another breathless exclusive that jeopardizes American strategy--and lives--in a war zone.

According to reporters Matthew Rosenberg and Eric Schmitt, data from a captured Al Qaida laptop has led to a spike in raids against terrorist leaders in Afghanistan over the past four months:

"As an October chill fell on the mountain passes that separate the militant havens in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a small team of Afghan intelligence commandos and American Special Operations forces descended on a village where they believed a leader of Al Qaeda was hiding.

That night the Afghans and Americans got their man, Abu Bara al-Kuwaiti. They also came away with what officials from both countries say was an even bigger prize: a laptop computer and files detailing Qaeda operations on both sides of the border.

American military officials said the intelligence seized in the raid was possibly as significant as the information found in the computer and documents of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, after members of the Navy SEALs killed him in 2011.

In the months since, the trove of intelligence has helped fuel a significant increase in night raids by American Special Operations forces and Afghan intelligence commandos, Afghan and American officials said."

The increase in missions against enemy leadership is hardly unsurprising.  The "trove" of material taken from al-Kuwaiti's hideout generated plenty of actionable intelligence, giving special forces teams critical information on terrorist locations, communications networks and planned operations.  Obviously, the data was perishable; if SF personnel and the CIA didn't act quickly, they would miss golden opportunities to kill or capture terrorist leaders and disrupt their networks.  

Equally unsurprising is the NYT's decision to run with the story.  The paper rarely gets a leak it doesn't like--or publish--with little regard for the military consequences.  Mr. Schmitt, you may recall, was among the reporters who first exposed NSA's domestic surveillance program.  The merits of that program (and its impact on civil liberties) are open for debate, but the NYT's revelations made it more difficult to track terrorists within our borders, giving them a primer on the scope and scale of electronic collection efforts.        

Indeed, the head of the FBI's Counterterrorism Division, Michael Steinbach, told Congress yesterday that the threat posed by Americans who have fought with ISIS is "far from being under control."  The Director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) and the senior intelligence official for the Department of Homeland Security also testified, and agreed with Steinbach's assessment.  

Of the dozens of Americans who have gone to Syria or Iraq and trained with terrorists there, “a small group” of them have returned to the United States and are now being tracked by the FBI, sources previously told ABC News. 

But today, Steinbach told lawmakers: "It would not be true if I told you that we knew about all of the returnees. … We know what we know.”

Nevertheless, authorities are “doing the best we can” to keep tabs on Americans and others traveling to Syria or Iraq, and to develop new “processes” to identify travelers, Steinbach said. He suggested automated searches of social media could help deal with the problem. 

Steinbach described ISIS’ online efforts as “dangerously competent like no other group before,” using social media and other Internet forums “to both radicalize and recruit.” 

Apparently, no one asked Mr. Steinbach (or the other officials) about the impact of intelligence leaks on counter-terror efforts.  But it's a fair bet that some of the Americans who fought with ISIS received training on how to cover their trail overseas and upon returning to the United States.  And that process becomes much easier with more information on how we gather intelligence information--and act on it.  

Back in Afghanistan, someone ought to ask if there's been a decline in the number of terrorists killed and captured since the raid that netted al-Kuwaiti.  To be fair, there is always a bit of a falloff when a major Al Qaida or Taliban leader is taken down; other individuals in the network often go to ground, realizing their identities (and place in the operation) may soon be exposed.  But the Times' expose will make it even more difficult to track down other terror figures in the weeks ahead.  Even in Afghanistan, word gets around.  

Additionally, stories like the one published today may increase the risk to U.S. and Afghan personnel assigned to carry out such raids.  Al Qaida and its allies are certainly capable of mounting major deception operations, like the one that killed seven CIA operatives in 2010.  Kicking in the doors of suspected terrorist dens became even more dangerous, since the NYT was kind enough to confirm that we're hot on the trail of al-Kuwaiti's key associates.  

But we shouldn't place all of the blame on reporters and editors who printed the story.  Without the required leaks (this time from "military officials") there would be no exclusive.  And that begs other questions, namely, who are these individuals and why in the hell are they talking to The New York Times while the operation is still underway?  

We're guessing--and it's pure speculation--that the U.S. officials who talked to the paper are civilians and political appointees.  With President Obama's re-formulated strategy against ISIS already under fire, the administration wanted to show it's still mounting aggressive efforts against our enemies.  This is (apparently) an illustration of how Mr. Obama's policies--heavy on SOF and drone strikes, light on conventional forces--can successfully counter terrorists.  

Unfortunately, that theory has a couple of problems.  First of all, Al Qaida, ISIS and other terror organizations have always demonstrated a fair amount of resiliency.  Whack a leader here, and a new one emerges.  And secondly, these decapitation missions--while expertly planned and executed--have little impact on the environment that supports terror networks, particularly those as large as ISIS.  

It will be interesting to see if anyone is punished for this latest leak.  As we've noted in the past, the Obama Administration has been extremely aggressive in going after individuals who divulge classified information--except when they happen to be senior officials.  Last December, Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa excoriated Pentagon officials after it was revealed they bungled an inquiry into a leak by former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.  Mr. Panetta was accused of discussing classified information relating to the raid that killed Osama bin Laden with producers of the film Zero Dark Thirty. 

If the latest disclosure goes unpunished, you can assume it came from one of the "big boys" (and girls) who speak without fear of consequences.  Too bad we can't put them at the head of the next SF "stack" entering a terrorist compound in Afghanistan or Iraq.  With their perfumed and pampered asses in the line of fire, they might take a different view on leaks.                                 



1 comment:

Meca Jon said...