Insurgents gain a deadly edge in intelligence 

By John Diamond, Steven Komarow and Kevin Johnson (USA Today, 13 November 2003)

U.S. forces are losing the intelligence battle in Iraq to an increasingly organized guerrilla force that uses stealth, spies and surprise to inflict punishing casualties.
U.S. military, intelligence and law enforcement officials say that after six months of intensifying guerrilla warfare, Iraqi insurgents know more about the U.S. and allied forces -- their style of operations, convoy routes and vulnerable targets -- than the coalition forces know about them. Indeed, U.S. intelligence has had trouble simply identifying the enemy and figuring out how many are Iraqis and how many are foreign fighters.

With local knowledge and the element of surprise on their side, the guerrillas are exploiting their intelligence edge to overcome the coalition's overwhelming military superiority. Insurgents routinely use inexpensive explosives to destroy multimillion-dollar assets, including tanks and helicopters. Using surveillance and inside information, the guerrillas have assassinated many Iraqis helping the coalition, gunned down a member of the U.S.-appointed Governing Council, killed the top United Nations official in Iraq and blasted the heavily guarded hotel in Baghdad where Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was staying.

Sophisticated U.S. intelligence tools such as spy satellites and electronic eavesdropping intercepts have been of little practical use, according to intelligence officials in Washington and military officers in Iraq. And despite an intense search and exhaustive intelligence efforts, deposed leader Saddam Hussein remains at large.

The key problem is that Iraqi guerrillas simply have more and better sources than the coalition. U.S. military officers worry that the Iraqis who work for them, such as translators, cooks and drivers, include moles who routinely pass inside information back to insurgents. In at least two cases, Iraqis have been fired on the suspicion that they were spies. 

A former senior director in the Iraqi intelligence service says the Americans are right to be anxious.''The intelligence on the Americans is comprehensive and detailed,'' says the Iraqi, who insisted on not being identified and spoke to a reporter in a private home rather than at a restaurant or hotel to avoid being observed. He says guerrillas get detailed reports on what is going on inside the palace grounds occupied by Paul Bremer, the chief U.S. civilian administrator, Bremer's staff and the Governing Council. Again on Tuesday, guerrillas fired mortar rounds into the ''Green Zone,'' a heavily secured area of central Baghdad that includes Bremer's headquarters.

Attacks on troops, Iraqis

Guerrilla forces have mounted repeated attacks on U.S. convoys despite frequent changes of route and routine. One frustrated U.S. commander points out that there are only so many ways to drive between downtown Baghdad and Baghdad International Airport, a trip U.S. forces must make and during which they have frequently been ambushed.

Insurgents have also mounted devastating attacks after conducting patient surveillance of major targets such as the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, the elaborately secured Al Rasheed Hotel and a military supply train.

And they have identified and in several cases killed Iraqis helping the coalition. An Iraqi scientist who had provided confidential assistance to U.S. teams hunting for banned weapons last summer was gunned down outside his Baghdad apartment, chief U.S. weapons searcher David Kay told members of Congress last month. A week ago, an Iraqi security guard working with the Army on the secure transport of surplus Iraqi munitions answered a knock on his door and was asked whether he was still helping the Americans. He answered yes and was fatally shot three times in the chest, according to Dan Coberly, spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers. 

U.S. intelligence cable traffic between Baghdad and Washington is rife with warnings about Iraqi employees of the coalition secretly supplying information to guerrillas, according to a U.S. intelligence official and a high-ranking defense official. Coalition authorities suspect that some insider information may have aided guerrillas in the Aug. 19 bombing of the U.N. headquarters that killed Sergio Viera de Mello, the top U.N. official in Iraq. The former Iraqi intelligence official says guerrillas knew that Wolfowitz was at the Al Rasheed Hotel last week, a closely guarded secret.

''Absolutely they did. In fact, the sixth and 12th floors were targeted,'' the Iraqi says. Pentagon officials say they have no evidence the guerrillas knew Wolfowitz was in the hotel when they launched their rocket barrage Oct. 26. 

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says the coalition will rapidly increase the number of Iraqis serving as police and joining U.S. forces on military patrols. But he acknowledges that hurrying Iraqis into security roles increases the risk that some will be moles working for the other side.
The guerrillas are as skillful at keeping their secrets out of U.S. hands as they are at collecting sensitive information about coalition operations. By using rudimentary security precautions such as avoiding the careless use of cellphones, guerrillas have kept their attack plans a secret. A series of bombings last week in Baghdad caught U.S. commanders completely by surprise, according to two U.S. military sources in Iraq.

A defense intelligence official says Iraqi guerrillas are sophisticated in covert tradecraft. They ''compartmentalize'' information, so no one operative knows enough to compromise an operation if caught. They use ''cut-outs,'' intermediaries who protect the identity of operatives and pass messages. And they plant false information in coalition hands.

Just such a false lead may have led to the ambush death of a National Guard military policeman, Spc. Richard Orengo, in Najaf in June. Called to investigate a car theft, Orengo instead walked into a firefight and was killed.

Coalition struggles

Army Lt. Col. Jim Danna, a unit commander in Baghdad, says soldiers in Iraq know they can't rely on complex intelligence devices to fight the Iraqi insurgency.

''The U.S. intelligence community in general is a technology-based force, designed to fight against a peer foe,'' such as the Soviet Union, Danna says. But what is going on in Iraq today ''is a human-based war.'' For troops trying to protect themselves and the new Iraqi government, the useful information is ''98% human intelligence'' from local sources.

Military intelligence field units have had some success developing reliable sources, arresting former regime officials and increasing the volume of viable tips, commanders say. But they face an Iraqi populace reluctant to help them, whether because the Iraqis oppose the occupation or fear they'll be killed by guerrillas if they cooperate.

Intelligence officials say they have had little success in getting information that would allow them to thwart attacks. Some tips have turned out to be traps meant to lure soldiers into ambushes. 

''No, we're not satisfied with the quality or quantity of our intelligence,'' Wolfowitz told National Public Radio last week. Field commanders now get so many reports from Iraqi sources that ''sifting out the good from the bad is a real challenge,'' Wolfowitz said.

At the field headquarters of the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division in downtown Baghdad, intelligence gathering resembles old-fashioned detective work.

Told that an informant says a Saddam loyalist wanted for questioning has turned up at a local hotel, Army Col. Ralph Baker replies, ''Let's pick him up.''

Baker says traditional Army methods are light on human intelligence. The focus is the battlefield, not the community. But now, Baker and others say, the only way to win is to get tips from the same people the Army is working with on sewage projects, school renovations and the like.

''We call them the silent majority,'' Baker says. ''We were slow getting started,'' he concedes, but today ''we have a tremendous information network.''

'Mission impossible'

While the military wants information about the location of guerrilla hideouts and coming attacks, the FBI has a large team in Baghdad trying to find the culprits in recent rocket and car-bomb attacks.

One official with knowledge of the investigations says the difficulty of getting reliable intelligence has made tracking down attackers ''almost mission impossible.'' For example, Iraq's unreliable telephone system has confounded U.S. efforts to consistently gain information from the sort of electronic surveillance that works in U.S. investigations, the official says.

An example of the frustration experienced by U.S. authorities has been the ongoing FBI investigation into the U.N. bombing. 

Within hours of the blast, investigators had recovered the vehicle identification number, manufacturer number and Iraqi license plate attached to the Russian-made truck used in the bombing. In most countries, the recovery of just one of those items would have been a coup, tantamount to a quick and sure resolution.

In the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the rear axle of the truck that held the bomb led agents to the Kansas rental agency where bomber Timothy McVeigh had leased the vehicle. Parts of the truck used in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing also linked terror suspects to a rental agency. In Iraq, the gold mine of vehicle evidence yielded little immediate payoff because Iraqi vehicle records are in disarray.

Furthermore, continuing combat in Baghdad means that even on routine forays through the city, FBI agents must travel with the bureau's hostage rescue team just to ensure the agents' safety. The heavily armed and visually conspicuous teams get in the way of conducting clandestine meetings with Iraqi sources. 

''It's pretty difficult to get people to feel comfortable with you when you pull up with a SWAT team,'' the official says.

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