Los Angeles Times Uncovers a Major Security Breach

A reporter uncovers a shocking threat to U.S. military security: A market in Afghanistan for computer drives containing classified information.

While the war in Iraq sputters and flares, and concern grows over Iran’s long-term nuclear ambitions, a Los Angeles Times reporter has been busy this week unearthing a smaller but shocking security threat to the U.S. military: a market in Afghanistan selling computer drives containing classified military information.

“No more than 200 yards from the main gate of the sprawling U.S. base here, stolen computer drives containing classified military assessments of enemy targets, names of corrupt Afghan officials and descriptions of American defenses are on sale in the local bazaar,” the Times’ Paul Watson reported Monday from Bagram, site of the military’s largest base in the country. According to shop owners, Watson wrote, Afghan workers (cleaners, garbage collectors — your typical information spies) arrive from the base each day offering pilfered goods including “refrigerators, packets of Viagra and [tiny] flash memory drives taken from military laptops.”

Several drives the Times obtained from the bazaar included “secret” documents “that were potentially embarrassing to Pakistan, a U.S. ally; presentations that named suspected militants targeted for ‘kill or capture’; and discussions of U.S. efforts to ‘remove’ or ‘marginalize’ Afghan government officials whom the military considered ‘problem makers’” — not to mention “deployment rosters and other documents that identified nearly 700 U.S. service members and their Social Security numbers,” leaving the soldiers vulnerable to identity theft.

Afghan workers manage to hustle the goods off the base without too much difficulty, the shop owners told Watson: “Workers are supposed to be frisked as they leave the base, but they have various ways of deceiving guards, such as hiding computer drives behind photo IDs that they wear in holders around their necks.”

Watson’s Wednesday follow-up report told the story from inside the shops, leading off with how one seller evaded U.S. soldiers’ inquiries:

Black marketeers can feel the heat a long way off. So by the time U.S. soldiers came looking Tuesday, the shopkeeper had his military computer drives tucked away in a zip-lock bag on a hidden shelf. …

“They were from military intelligence,” said the one with the hidden shelf as he pulled out the plastic bag containing four drives. “They won’t be able to do anything,” he added, with a dismissive wave of his hand.

While the military said it was looking into the situation, Watson looked in on the browsing of a mysterious customer who “wanted nothing but tech.”

Today, Watson (with special correspondent Wesal Zaman again contributing from Kabul) pushed the story forward some more, describing a flash memory drive newly acquired by the Times containing information which in the wrong hands could “jeopardize the safety of intelligence sources working secretly for U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan”:

A computer drive sold openly Wednesday at a bazaar outside the U.S. air base here holds what appears to be a trove of potentially sensitive American intelligence data, including the names, photographs and telephone numbers of Afghan spies informing on the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

While the paper “withheld personal information and details that could compromise military operations,” the Times did describe in detail the contents of the drive — sold for $40 by a teenage clerk who said it had been smuggled out of the Bagram base just the day before.

Most of the drive’s documents “are neither locked nor encrypted,” Watson wrote, although they contain, for example, the names of the wives and children of Afghan informants working for the military — “details that could put them at risk of retaliation by insurgents who have boasted about executing dozens of people suspected of spying for U.S. forces.”

Bagram, a center of classified military activity, saw another embarrassing security breach last summer when “four Al Qaeda members, including the group’s commander in Southeast Asia, Omar Faruq, escaped from Bagram by picking the lock on their cell,” as the Times reported Monday.

Watson’s series of stories has called attention to a serious problem — and prodded the military into finally taking concrete action through “an investigation into potential criminal activity” and “a review of policies and procedures for keeping track of computer hardware and software.”

Let’s hope those moves by the military prove to be as effective as Watson’s reporting has been.

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Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.