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U.S. Military Secrets for Sale at Afghan Bazaar

April 10, 2006|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

BAGRAM, Afghanistan — No more than 200 yards from the main gate of the sprawling U.S. base here, stolen computer drives containing classified military assessments of enemy targets, names of corrupt Afghan officials and descriptions of American defenses are on sale in the local bazaar.

Shop owners at the bazaar say Afghan cleaners, garbage collectors and other workers from the base arrive each day offering purloined goods, including knives, watches, refrigerators, packets of Viagra and flash memory drives taken from military laptops. The drives, smaller than a pack of chewing gum, are sold as used equipment.

The thefts of computer drives have the potential to expose military secrets as well as Social Security numbers and other identifying information of military personnel.

A reporter recently obtained several drives at the bazaar that contained documents marked "Secret." The contents included documents that were potentially embarrassing to Pakistan, a U.S. ally, presentations that named suspected militants targeted for "kill or capture" and discussions of U.S. efforts to "remove" or "marginalize" Afghan government officials whom the military considered "problem makers."

The drives also included deployment rosters and other documents that identified nearly 700 U.S. service members and their Social Security numbers, information that identity thieves could use to open credit card accounts in soldiers' names.

After choosing the name of an army captain at random, a reporter using the Internet was able to obtain detailed information on the woman, including her home address in Maryland and the license plate numbers of her 2003 Jeep Liberty sport utility vehicle and 1998 Harley Davidson XL883 Hugger motorcycle.

Troops serving overseas would be particularly vulnerable to attempts at identity theft because keeping track of their bank and credit records is difficult, said Jay Foley, co-executive director of the Identity Theft Resource Center in San Diego.

"It's absolutely absurd that this is happening in any way, shape or form," Foley said. "There's absolutely no reason for anyone in the military to have that kind of information on a flash drive and then have it out of their possession."

A flash drive also contained a classified briefing about the capabilities and limitations of a "man portable counter-mortar radar" used to find the source of guerrilla mortar rounds. A map pinpoints the U.S. camps and bases in Iraq where the sophisticated radar was deployed in March 2004.

Lt. Mike Cody, a spokesman for the U.S. forces here, declined to comment on the computer drives or their content.

"We do not discuss issues that involve or could affect operational security," he said.

Workers are supposed to be frisked as they leave the base, but they have various ways of deceiving guards, such as hiding computer drives behind photo IDs that they wear in holders around their necks, shop owners said. Others claim that U.S. soldiers illegally sell military property and help move it off the base, saying they need the money to pay bills back home.

Bagram base, the U.S. military's largest in Afghanistan and a hub for classified military activity, has suffered security lapses before, including an escape from a detention center where hundreds of Al Qaeda and Taliban suspects have been held and interrogated.

Last July, four Al Qaeda members, including the group's commander in Southeast Asia, Omar Faruq, escaped from Bagram by picking the lock on their cell. They then walked off the base, ditched their prison uniforms and fled through a muddy vineyard.

The men later boasted of their escape on a video and have not been captured. The military said it had tightened security at Bagram after the breakout.

One of the computer drives stolen from Bagram contained a series of slides prepared for a January 2005 briefing of American military officials that identified several Afghan governors and police chiefs as "problem makers" involved in kidnappings, the opium trade and attacks on allied troops with improvised bombs.

The chart showed the U.S. military's preferred methods of dealing with the men: "remove from office; if unable marginalize."

A chart dated Jan. 2, 2005, listed five Afghans as "Tier One Warlords." It identified Afghanistan's former defense minister Mohammed Qassim Fahim, current military chief of staff Abdul Rashid Dostum and counter-narcotics chief Gen. Mohammed Daoud as being involved in the narcotics trade. All three have denied committing crimes.

Another slide presentation identified 12 governors, police chiefs and lower-ranking officials that the U.S. military wanted removed from office. The men were involved in activities including drug trafficking, recruiting of Taliban fighters and active support for Taliban commanders, according to the presentation, which also named the military's preferred replacements.

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