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THE UNTOLD WAR

Intelligence Officers Read Between the Enemy Lines

The Untold War

June 23, 2002|GREG MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan — When she arrived in Afghanistan in December, Marie, 21, had never interrogated a prisoner. The only indication that she might have some aptitude for it, she said, was her success in extracting secrets from her sisters while growing up in Michigan.

"I always found out what I was getting for Christmas," she said.

Many of the Al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners held here are Muslim extremists reluctant to make eye contact with a woman, let alone sell out their cause to one. Yet Marie, an Army interrogator, has loosened the tongues of dozens of detainees, including a senior Al Qaeda operative. Her approach, like Marie herself, is both disarming and icily direct.

"The hardest thing I've had to do is be nice to these people," she said.

"You go in there, bring them coffee, trying to make them think you're their friend. They're not my friend. Most of the people we talk to are really the enemy. To convince them that the best possible thing they can do is tell us the truth--it's a little piece of revenge."

The machinery of war clamors continuously here at America's forward base in Afghanistan, as armored vehicles and Chinook helicopters rumble and explosions echo off the surrounding hills. But Marie is part of another operation at Bagram that goes about its business in virtual silence.

In a boarded-up warehouse ringed with barbed wire, she and other U.S. interrogators seek to pry information from captured Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives.

In air-conditioned tents stocked with scanners, laptops and digital cameras, crews of linguists and analysts comb through materials taken from Al Qaeda caves and safe houses. Among the more than 20,000 documents recovered are lists of Al Qaeda leaders killed in battle, detailed diaries from terrorist training camps and long-winded letters to Arab leaders from Osama bin Laden.

As military operations go, interrogating prisoners and poring over documents are generally not the stuff of which heroes are made. But the war on terrorism is unlike any other war in its dependence on intelligence, and the interrogators and "document exploitation" teams in Afghanistan occupy a crucial front. Sometimes derided by their combat peers as "intel weenies," the interrogation unit at Bagram recently commissioned T-shirts with a message of uncharacteristic bravado.

"The greatest battle," the shirts read, "is the battle of wits."

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Operations That Are Cloaked in Secrecy

The battle of wits is among the most carefully cloaked aspects of the war. Those involved generally aren't allowed to tell even their families what they do. Most of those interviewed for this story--in Afghanistan, Kuwait and the United States--asked that their full names not be disclosed. No access was granted to prisoners, and officials discussed only in general terms the information gleaned from interrogations.

The significance of their painstaking work has been demonstrated several times since Sept. 11, as kernels of information collected in Afghanistan have enabled authorities around the world to shut down terrorist cells and disrupt plots.

In one of the most striking examples, authorities in Singapore said that in December they broke up an Al Qaeda cell planning to bomb a shuttle bus carrying U.S. military personnel. Officials said details of the plot came from interrogations of a prisoner in Afghanistan and from handwritten notes picked out of the rubble of an Al Qaeda leader's house.

More recently, U.S. officials have detained an American citizen accused of plotting to detonate a radioactive bomb on U.S. soil. The tip was said to have come from Abu Zubeida, a top Al Qaeda operative captured in Pakistan. But defense officials said some of the details about the "dirty bomb" scheme also came from documents found in Afghanistan.

The intelligence job in Afghanistan has come under some criticism. When U.S. helicopters were ambushed at the outset of Operation Anaconda in March and eight soldiers died, Pentagon officials whispered that intelligence had let them down.

The job is also incomplete.

"We haven't found Osama bin Laden yet, and I'd be lying if I said that wasn't a low," said Maj. David Carstens, 35, the operational leader of the Army's interrogation and document teams in Afghanistan. "Sometimes you can go through all sorts of interrogations, all sorts of documents, and the information just isn't there."

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Similarities Between Military, Civilian Roles

Though the CIA and FBI have captured most of the intelligence headlines, good and bad, in the war on terrorism, much of the heavy lifting in Afghanistan is being done by an unlikely collection of troops and civilians.

Marie, who asked to be identified only by her middle name, attended college briefly before joining the Army and hopes to become a schoolteacher.

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