U.S. plans to provide Iraq with wiretapping system

July 30, 2011

The United States is planning to provide the Iraqi government with a wiretapping system to eavesdrop on cellular calls and messages “to assist in combating criminal organizations and insurgencies,” according to a U.S. Air Force contract solicitation.

The proposed system would allow Iraqi officials to monitor and store voice calls, data transmissions and text messages and would be installed with the acquiescence of the three current cellular communications providers in Iraq, according to documents accompanying the solicitation.

The system, which would be able to target at least 5,000 devices, would be designed for expansion to cover land-line telephone systems and international mobile telecommunications.

Maj. Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchanan, spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq, said the equipment would be similar to the technology used by federal and state law enforcement agencies in the United States. “Iraq’s stringent surveillance laws require law enforcement to obtain a warrant before accessing and monitoring private conversations,” he said in a statement last week.

An American contractor would buy, install and maintain the equipment, and would train the Iraqis to run it. As envisioned in the solicitation, the system’s computerized monitoring stations will be located in Baghdad at an existing signals intelligence center, backed up by computer servers at the Interior Ministry’s National Information and Investigation Agency, the country’s primary investigative agency.

“This is a country where there is still a threat from Sunni and Shia elements and as the U.S. withdraws and insurgency dies down, there is a core structure of organized crime that will assert itself,” said Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Calling the intercept system a key source of intelligence, Cordesman said that if the United States did not supply the system, the Iraqis would buy it elsewhere.

“It is scarcely a technology unique to the United States,” he said.

The United States set up a similar system in Afghanistan three years ago to assist the Drug Enforcement Administration in its investigations of suspected terrorists involved in the drug trade. A budget document supplied to Congress in 2007 described planned procurement of “field switch-based equipment to support communications intercepts through cooperation with cellular and hard-line telephone service providers.”

That American wiretapping system saw dozens of Afghan translators transcribing cellphone conversations in a secret facility in Kabul.

“It was not designed to specifically focus on corruption,” Michael Braun, a former operations chief for the DEA, told The Washington Post last year. “With that said, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that when you follow the money, it will take you to the drugs, the guns and corrupt officials.”

The Iraq intercept system would include some of the most modern tracking capabilities. It would be capable of maintaining a database of “a comprehensive catalog of targets, associates and relationships,” according to the statement of work.

With mapping overlays, it should have the ability to locate targets being monitored and a warning alarm of less than 10 minutes if two or more targets come within a defined distance of each other.

Staff writer Greg Miller contributed to this report.

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