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U.S. Military Looks Into Data Sales in Afghanistan

April 12, 2006|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

BAGRAM, Afghanistan — Black marketeers can feel the heat a long way off. So by the time U.S. soldiers came looking Tuesday, the shopkeeper had his military computer drives tucked away in a zip-lock bag on a hidden shelf.

The U.S. military said Tuesday that it was looking into reports that computer drives containing military data, some marked "secret," were available for as little as $20 in a bazaar outside its biggest base, and soldiers were visible making rounds there. But once they passed, at least two shopkeepers still offered memory drives for sale.

"They were from military intelligence," said the one with the hidden shelf as he pulled out the plastic bag containing four drives. "They won't be able to do anything," he added, with a dismissive wave of his hand.

Nearby, another fence displayed two memory drives that he said an Afghan worker on the base delivered to him after a shift change Tuesday morning. He invited a shopper to return today, when he expected four more drives to arrive.

Lt. Mike Cody, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said Tuesday that Bagram's commanders "take operational security seriously."

"We will not comment in detail on these reports, but the circumstances are being reviewed," he said. "More information will be provided as it becomes available."

The Times first reported Monday that drives for sale at the bazaar contained documents marked "secret" and that they also listed the names and Social Security numbers of nearly 700 U.S. service members. In addition, they included discussions of U.S. efforts to "remove" or "marginalize" Afghan government officials whom the military considered "problem makers."

Bagram airfield is the biggest U.S. base in Afghanistan, where fighter jets and bombers take off on missions against insurgents, and suspected terrorists are flown in to a highly secretive detention and interrogation center.

Hundreds of Afghans work there as service staff. All are screened before they enter, and are supposed to be frisked as they leave the facility. But shop owners say they obtained the drives from workers who stole them and managed to conceal them from guards.

As a result, less than 200 yards from the main gate, information on operations, staff and other matters is available to any buyer. The stored data include video clips of soldiers pumping iron in the gym or kissing their kids at Christmas, as well as documents marked "secret," like briefings on targeted terrorist bases.

Then there is the sadly personal, such as the resignation letter of a military police officer, whose revelation that she was a rape victim turned up on a drive purchased at the bazaar.

The flash drives, which range from the size of a stick of gum to a disposable lighter, sell for $20 to $80, depending on how many megabytes of data they can hold.

Some of the traders happily admit they have no idea what the drives are used for, or what they contain.

But some customers show a keen interest in the devices. One recent customer shopping for modems, flash drives and other computer equipment was a man in his early 40s with weathered, well-tanned skin, a long black beard and cracked sandals.

He spoke Pashto, usually heard farther south in regions racked by the escalating insurgency.

He showed no interest in the used mattresses, combat fatigues, fold-up cots, old running shoes and khaki web belts heaped up like army surplus in front of about 30 shops in the bazaar.

He walked past a small refrigerator decorated with American bumper stickers declaring "United We Stand" and "Bush-Cheney '04." He wanted nothing but tech.

One shop owner said he "washed" the drives, meaning that he erased the contents, in case U.S. soldiers came looking.

But deleted files were readily retrievable using German software downloaded from the Internet.

The drive contained dozens of personal photographs and two cockpit videos of air attacks by a U.S. helicopter and a C-130 Specter gunship. One scene shows night-vision images of people being fired upon. The helicopter footage was broadcast by television news outlets, and the gunship footage was available on the Internet.

Other drives hold digital music files of artists such as Ludacris and Boyz N Da Hood, self-improvement guides and a seating plan for American officers at briefings.

Under the heading "Season Ticket Holders," a diagram dated Aug. 6, 2004, shows a T-shaped table with three brigadier generals facing two colonels, five majors and a political advisor. At least 10 other officers sat away from the table.

Items on the agenda included "psyops," military jargon for psychological operations, that included campaigns in the Afghan print and radio media to "discredit" people making improvised explosive devices.

"Prepare radio news stories for local stations highlighting Afghan National Police support," read one in a list of recommended actions to help defeat a growing insurgency.

In the local bazaar, a disappointed shopkeeper who couldn't interest a reporter in an assortment of Army binoculars, watches, bowie knives, combat boots and other U.S. military items suggested he come back in a few weeks.

A large group of American soldiers is due to go home, he said, and when soldiers pack to leave, there are always good pickings for thieves, he said.

"There are a lot of things soon to come out of Bagram," he promised.

*

Special correspondent Wesal Zaman in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.

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