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Intel Gone Bad: Exhibit Iraq

(On Violence is devoting the month of May--and most of June--to a simple idea with complex ramifications: Intelligence is Evidence. Click here to read the previous posts.)

Insurgencies--which tread on that messy line between war and law enforcement--are good friends to miscarriages of justice. So, at the height of the insurgency in Iraq, it should come as no surprise that the American military made mistakes.

Friend of On Violence and Small Wars Journal editor Mike Few recently released part one of a three-part paper about how his company pacified a village called Zaganiyah in Diyala River Valley in Iraq. I recommend his paper to company grade soldiers, or readers who want a feel for how a company should approach the “clear” phase of a counter-insurgency operation. Mike F provides a text-book example of leading a company and planning a complex operation. However, actions by other soldiers in his Brigade provide a textbook example of intelligence gone bad.

From Page 13:

“The interpreter is your guide through both the physical and human terrain, and they control the conversation. We had to be cautious and aware to the interpreter‘s internal motivations and external feuds. Moreover, in Diyala Province, many interpreters were Kurdish and spoke only broken Arabic. After exhausting six interpreters, I found Mufasa ―Moose‖ Fahmi al Zaharie. Long considered the best interpreter in the province. Moose hailed from Zaganiyah, and his rolodex included every major sheik and power player in the province. Furthermore, Moose personally saved my own life on three separate occasions by having his friends call us when insurgents would place an IED on our path. This prestige led to privileged status on American Forward Operating Bases (FOBs). Moose was my right-hand man. He lived and dined with us, characteristics unheard of on FOB Warhorse where interpreters were segregated. This status provoked much jealousy amongst the other interpreters outside of our squadron, and they concocted a plan to undermine and spite him.

“The civil war raging in Iraq was not isolated within the American FOBs, and the same Sunni-Shia divide affected the interpreters. In mid-March, I received a call from MAJ Sylvia after returning from a reconnaissance patrol. The Brigade S2, intelligence officer, wanted to arrest Moose on suspicion of working with al Qaeda. I laughed and deemed it impossible. Not only had Moose provided us with a house by house description of Zaganiyah to include exactly who the power players were and how they had gained control, but his house had been destroyed by AQI in December 2006 in retribution for working with the Americans. However, I soon found that this arrest was deadly serious. When I asked for the source, it was two Shia interpreters who were simply jealous of Moose. Without context, the evidence appeared staggering. Moose was in the Zaharie tribe related to both Sheik Septar and Ali Latif. On some black and white link diagram, it seemed like a perfect connection that Moose was operating as an al Qaeda spy—that is, until you consider that he was informing on the same folks that he supposedly working for. I pleaded my case through the brigade command and lost. When it was time for Moose to go to jail, I personally escorted him, hugged him, and apologized. We lost Moose prior to intervention, and with his absence, we lost our best guide into the valley.

“Footnote 31: For the past four years, I followed Moose‘s case leading to his ultimate release from detention. For his assistance helping the United States Government, Moose faces daily assassination attempts. Currently, we are working through the US State Department and the Department of Homeland Security to garner him a United States citizenship. If he gets approved, I plan to sponsor his transition in the US. For his sacrifice, it is the least that I can do. “

The story of Moose and his detention shows several of the problems with intelligence/evidence in a counter-insurgency. First, Moose couldn’t plead his case in front of a judge and jury to get released quickly. Second, even if he was wrongly detained, he has little to no recourse to achieve monetary compensation like in America. Third, the evidence to detain him was minuscule. Two informants--two!--whose motives were clearly dubious, is all it takes.

The fourth problem stems from the two informants. The people making the decision to arrest Moose--operations officers backed up by all-source intelligence analysts--couldn’t directly interview the human intelligence sources, only the human intelligence collectors could. This isn’t quite stovepiping, but it does limit our intelligence analysts in ways that law enforcement detectives or investigators are not.

In the end, the result of Moose’s case was not the worst case scenario; he survived. Monday’s article, on the other hand, will describe cases in Afghanistan which end tragically.

four comments

First, this story is just heart breaking. I mean, I got depressed listening to this thing.

Second thing, great article Mike. I’ll also say, the writing in this thing is good. I just wrote up a draft post on military writing, and this essay represents good writing.

I’m glad that y’all liked the paper. We should here a final status on Moose next month from the State Department. Our fingers are crossed.

Hope things work out well for Moose. Interpreters/cultural advisors are a crucial part of the fight. All to frequently I see units marginalized because they mistreat them or let things like this happen.

This is one more very distressing story alongside of a number that occurred at Gitmo and, after 9/11,in detention centers in New Jersey and elsewhere – persons that turned out to be innocent were held without access to lawyers. In most cases, their families weren’t notified.

Yet we are fighting for democracy?

Thanks for the article and comments.