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Data Leaks Persist From Afghan Base

A computer drive sold at a bazaar for $40 may hold the names of spies for the United States who inform on the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

April 13, 2006|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

BAGRAM, Afghanistan — A computer drive sold openly Wednesday at a bazaar outside the U.S. air base here holds what appears to be a trove of potentially sensitive American intelligence data, including the names, photographs and telephone numbers of Afghan spies informing on the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

The flash memory drive, which a teenager sold for $40, holds scores of military documents marked "secret," describing intelligence-gathering methods and information -- including escape routes into Pakistan and the location of a suspected safe house there, and the payment of $50 bounties for each Taliban or Al Qaeda fighter apprehended based on the source's intelligence.

The documents appear to be authentic, but the accuracy of the information they contain could not be independently verified.

On its face, the information seems to jeopardize the safety of intelligence sources working secretly for U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan, which would constitute a serious breach of security. For that reason, The Times has withheld personal information and details that could compromise military operations.

U.S. commanders in Afghanistan said an investigation was underway into what shopkeepers at the bazaar describe as ongoing theft and resale of U.S. computer equipment from the Bagram air base. The facility is the center of intelligence-gathering activities and includes a detention center for suspected members of Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups flown in from around the world.

"Members of the Army's Criminal Investigation Command are conducting an investigation into potential criminal activity," a statement said.

The top U.S. commander here, Army Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, has ordered a review of policies and procedures for keeping track of computer hardware and software.

"Coalition officials regularly survey bazaars across Afghanistan for the presence of contraband materials, but thus far have not uncovered sensitive or classified items," the statement added.

The credibility and reliability of some intelligence sources identified in the documents is marked as unknown.

Other operatives, however, appear to be of high importance, including one whose information, the document says, led to the apprehension of seven Al Qaeda suspects in the United States.

One document describes a source as having "people working for him" in 11 Afghan cities. "The potential for success with this contact is unlimited," the report says.

Even the names of people identified as the sources' wives and children are listed -- details that could put them at risk of retaliation by insurgents who have boasted about executing dozens of people suspected of spying for U.S. forces.

The drive includes descriptions of Taliban commanders' meetings in neighboring Pakistan and maps of militants' infiltration and escape routes along its border with Afghanistan.

In another folder, there is a diagram of a mosque and madrasa, or Islamic school, where an informant said fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar had stayed in Pakistan.

Another document describes in detail how a member of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI, the Taliban's former mentors, tried to recruit an Afghan spying for the U.S. by promising him $500 a month.

Some of the documents can't be opened without a password, but most are neither locked nor encrypted.

Numerous files indicate the flash drive may have belonged to a member of the Army's 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne), based at Ft. Bragg, N.C. The unit is operating in southern Afghanistan, where a U.S.-led coalition is battling a growing insurgency.

Some of the computer files are dated as recently as this month, while others date to 2004. The clerk who sold the computer drive said an Afghan worker smuggled it out of the Bagram base Tuesday, a day after The Times first reported that military secrets were available at several stalls at the bazaar.

The 1-gigabyte flash drive sold at the bazaar Wednesday is almost full and contains personal snapshots, Special Forces training manuals, records of "direct action" training missions in South America, along with numerous computer slide presentations and documents marked "secret."

There is also a detailed "Site Security Survey" describing the layout of the Special Forces unit's "Low Visibility Operating Base" in southwestern Afghanistan. Another document outlines procedures for defending the base if it comes under attack, and there are several photographs of the walls and areas inside the perimeter.

The drive holds detailed information on a handful of Afghan informants identified by name and the number of contacts with U.S. handlers. In some cases, photographs of the sources are attached.

A report on a spy involved with a code-named operation says the Afghan has been used in "cross border operations." But it cautions that an American officer "has come to the conclusion that Contact may or may not be as security conscious as thought to be or expected."

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