Classified Military Data for Sale at Afghan Bazaar
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
Now to Afghanistan. How hard is it for someone to get their hands on classified military information? Well, not so hard for Los Angeles Times reporter Paul Watson.
He bought stolen U.S. military computer drives that contain classified information at an Afghan bazaar just outside the U.S.-run Bagram air base. We reached Paul Watson in Kabul earlier today.
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
Paul Watson, what you found very interesting there and what you wrote about Monday are these Flash drives, little memory packets for computers about the size of a pack of chewing gum. And you were able to buy some of these that had come from the air base. And they had secret information on them.
Mr. PAUL WATSON (Reporter, Los Angeles Times): That's right. They have everything from social security numbers for, we counted more than 700 soldiers, all the way up to briefings for commanders on the base which are marked secret, which include maps for targeting of suspected al-Qaida and Taliban bases, both inside Afghanistan, and also what they believe to be real bases in Pakistan.
CHADWICK: That's also some, what I would say, is awkward or highly embarrassing information about Afghan officials that the U.S. military thinks are not trustworthy. Indeed, they think they're drug smugglers, and there are discussions of governors and chiefs of police who the American military wants out of power.
Mr. WATSON: Some of them are even suspected, by the way, of being involved in attacks against U.S. in Afghan forces. These documents make it very clear that the U.S. military and Special Forces units are directly involved in identifying officials they want removed, and in making sure that they are replaced.
CHADWICK: How are these drives getting off of the base and into the market?
Mr. WATSON: The shop owners tell us that they are Afghan workers, garbage collectors, cleaners, people who wash U.S. forces' clothes who are able to take these, either by pulling them out of pockets or simply yanking them out of the little USB slot on the laptops, and then concealing them in different places as they leave the base at the end of their shift.
CHADWICK: The piece in the paper today recounts how the American military, after your story broke on Monday, I guess yesterday they went to the market looking to see if they could buy some of these things. But the shopkeepers hid them. When the military had gone by, the shopkeepers brought these things back out and said, yes, we still have them for sale.
And there's also a character in this story you describe, an Afghan man in his 40s who seems to be from the south, from the insurgent region, and he's looking to buy specifically these drives. He doesn't care about anything but these drives that have secret information on them.
Mr. WATSON: Well, we went back to the bazaar again today to check and also to buy some more of these, they've had recent deliveries of drives even today. So, the security leak is still a problem.
There are now journalists out trying to buy these things. And I suspect in a country like Afghanistan, there would be intelligence agents from any number of surrounding countries, including Pakistan, Iran, Russia, probably looking for the same things.
CHADWICK: A U.S. military spokesman you quote says, "We're not going to talk about operational procedures." But what steps is the military taking to try to control this? They've sent patrols through. What else?
Mr. WATSON: They've said absolutely nothing to me about specifically what they're doing. And just on the face of it, it doesn't look like they're doing much.
It's deeply shocking to me that this kind of information was available in a shop, and that the shop clerk was a 16-year-old boy who had no clue what this stuff is. And when we saw it, you know, I'm still shaking trying to figure out how this kind of information can be floating around in a bazaar.
CHADWICK: Paul Watson of the Los Angeles Times, reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan. Paul, thank you.
Mr. WATSON: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.