While insurgents in Iraq have placed informants inside the Iraqi government, the U.S. and Iraqi militaries, coalition contractors, and international news organizations, the United States is having serious intelligence problems in Iraq, according to sources inside and outside the U.S. government.
The CIA and the U.S. military were slow to start creating intelligence networks in Iraq and have had trouble developing informants because of death threats to Iraqis and their families should they get involved, the sources said.
"The insurgents have good sources in the Iraqi interim government and sometimes in local U.S. and coalition [military] commands," according to Anthony H. Cordesman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic & International Studies and a former Pentagon official, who this week published a study titled "Strengthening Iraqi Military and Security Forces."
"As in most insurgencies," writes Cordesman, " 'sympathizers' within the Iraqi government and Iraqi forces, as well as the Iraqis working for the coalition, media and NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], often provide excellent human intelligence without violently taking part in the insurgency."
Two recent events illustrate the problem. Last week, U.S. military and Iraqi forces raided the Baghdad offices of Iraqna, a mobile telephone service company, and seized the computers of two Egyptian security managers suspected of aiding the insurgents. On Wednesday, the Pentagon disclosed that the blast that killed 22 people at a U.S. military base outside Mosul on Tuesday was most likely set off by an insurgent who had penetrated the base.
In preparing his study, Cordesman, who specializes in the Middle East, visited Iraq and the Persian Gulf area repeatedly in the past two years and talked to U.S. intelligence experts, military officers and embassy officials, some in the past two weeks.
He and others note that the situation in Iraq is similar to what occurred almost 40 years ago in Vietnam, in that, as Cordesman puts it, local residents "are often pushed into providing data [to insurgents] because of family ties, a fear of being on the losing side, direct and indirect threats, etc." As in Vietnam, he says, there is in Iraq "the sense that as various insurgent factions organize, they steadily improve their intelligence and penetration of [coalition] organizations."
The same pressures hamper the U.S. effort to gain intelligence. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said to reporters on Wednesday: "The enemy's got a brain. . . . As things happen on the ground, they see what we do to respond to it. They then change their tactics. And intimidation is the kind of thing that can prevent people from providing intelligence" to coalition forces.
In Iraq, the CIA has the main responsibility for collecting intelligence on broad questions such as the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition and where its support comes from, while the U.S. military is primarily concerned with protecting the troops and their equipment.
The Iraq Survey Group -- a Pentagon unit that originally was assigned the task of finding weapons of mass destruction under the direction of the CIA director's representative -- is now primarily looking into the insurgency problem, according to a Pentagon intelligence official.
The Pentagon's intelligence operations are directed primarily at what is termed "force protection" and have used such battlefield tools as remotely piloted vehicles, such as the Predator, or devices that pick up signals intelligence. These were quickly countered by the insurgents, who began using couriers and the Internet for their communications instead of cell phones. They also halted bank transfers and the reliance on charities and turned instead to drug sales and theft for funding, Cordesman and other sources say.
"U.S. intelligence is optimized around characterizing, counting and targeting things rather than people," Cordesman says. "U.S. dependence on Iraqi translators and intelligence sources is a key area of U.S. vulnerability and one the insurgents have learned to focus on."
Although Cordesman concludes that "U.S. human intelligence is improving," he says it is "hurt badly" by the rapid turnover and rotation of CIA case officers and military personnel, commonly after less than a year in Iraq. In addition, he finds that there are "serious quality and loyalty problems" among the Iraqi informants.