The admonition “do not brag” likely will not be found in any intelligence manual. But strictures on revealing “sources and methods,” as well as common sense, dictate that certain matters are not discussed in public.
The obvious drawback to such disclosures — be they deliberate or accident — is that adversaries will take advantage of such information to avoid future losses.
Thus, considerable concern and dismay were heard in the intelligence community in early May about what can only be described as a bombshell breach of security procedures.
In an article distributed worldwide, the Reuters news agency reported that what were described as “four very senior members” of the Islamic State terrorist group were captured near the Turkish border by American and Iraqi intelligence officers.
Reuters reported that the team used intelligence garnered from what was described by as “a popular messaging app, WhatsApp,” which was attached to the cell phone of another ISIS figure who was captured earlier.
The chain of events began in February, when Turkish counterterrorism officers captured a man named Ismail al-Eithawi, who was a close aide to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, described as the “Iraqi-born leader of the group known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIS).
The capture produced the “WhatsApp” device and a sizable amount of electronic gear and other documents. The captured man, al-Eithawi, was no flunky. According to Iraqi security officials, he was tasked with arranging the secret transfer of ISIS funds to bank accounts around the world.
The Turkish crew gave the materials to Iraqi agents, who in turn shared them with American operatives.
After several days of intensive interrogation, al-Eithawi was “persuaded” to use the WhatsApp device to send messages arranging “an emergency face-to-face meeting between senior ISIS commanders in the area.”
When the Syrian-based commanders crossed into Iraq for the supposed meeting, they were seized by American and Iraqi operatives.
The group was said to include a Syrian and “two Iraqi field commanders,” including a terrorist named Saddam Jamal, who was the ISIS governor of the Euphrates region.
Hisham al-Hashimi, security adviser to the Iraqi government, said the men were “the most senior ISIS figures to have been captured alive by U.S.-led coalition forces.
As Reuters reported, this captured enabled the bi-national team to uncover a “treasure trove of covert bank accounts belonging to ISIS,” plus several pages of secret communication codes used by the militant group.
One can envision what happened when the Reuters report was circulated through Middle Eastern media: A mad scramble by ISIS figures to dispose of mobile phones that might be tapped, and to clean out the covert bank accounts before they were seized.
Who was responsible for the leak? Several retired American intelligence veterans — stressing that they had no first-hand knowledge of the episode — were hesitant to point a finger.
But these veterans stressed that any Americans with even basic training by the Central Intelligence Agency would have known instantly the necessity of keeping the seizure a secret.
Citing a lack of direct knowledge, none was willing to point a finger at the relatively-untrained Iraqi officers. “That would be pure speculation,” one former officer said. “But given the emphasis our side puts on security training, draw any conclusion you wish.”
In a brief White House announcement of the captures, President Donald Trump made no mention of the seized telephone.
As one retiree put it, “These terrorists are not the most sophisticated persons in the universe, but they are certainly smart enough to get rid of a phone that they know might have been compromised.”
Another officer recollected a years-ago incident involving a listening device which American operatives manage to install in a limousine used by a high-ranking Kremlin officer in Moscow.
According to this retiree, the Russian spoke candidly about both official and personal matters, providing American listeners with a treasure trove of information.
Word of the overheard conversations somehow leaked to columnist Jack Anderson. He published the information in The Washington Post and scores of other newspapers, and the listening device fell silent without hours.
A retired officer with experience in electronic matters said that active colleagues have told him that various terrorist organizations in the Middle East and elsewhere are “getting pretty sophisticated in their knowledge of the risks involved in speaking over telephones. My personal rule is that anything you say on a cell phone — or a regular phone, for that matter — is just as public as if you put it on a billboard out on I-95.”
Another retired officer had a devilish suggestion — “Float a leak that the information came from a bad guy you have been chasing but cannot catch. His ‘buddies’ will hear the news and do your work for you — ‘Bye bye!’”
• Joseph Goulden writes frequently on intelligence and military matters.
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