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The Boston Globe December 20, 2001 page A1

Interrogations may be key in bin Laden hunt

By Bryan Bender

WASHINGTON - While high-tech spy technology is playing a significant role in the hunt for Osama bin Laden - from satellites to aircraft to hand-held eavesdropping devices - US officials now believe the best way to find Al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives is to simply ask those who know them best.

Human, rather than technical, intelligence gathering will be the most effective way to get a bead on suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden, Taliban chief Mullah Mohammed Omar, and their top lieutenants, intelligence officials and specialists said.

But human intelligence is an inexact science and it's not the United States' strongest skill, they said. That means that, unlike the rapid success US forces enjoyed through laser-guided bombing strikes to defeat the Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters, the hunt for bin Laden could be a drawn-out process.

''The captured guys will give us the best picture of where they were, what happened to them and where they might have gone,'' said a US official with access to daily intelligence information from Afghanistan who requested anonymity.

So far the United States has taken custody of about 20 Al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners, and dozens more are expected to be caught. US officials have been silent on the identities of the prisoners, except to say that none is on the country's most wanted list of known terrorists. But the prisoners are believed to have valuable information about their leaders, as well as plans for possible future terrorist attacks.

One reason their identities are being closely guarded is to ensure their comrades do not know they have been captured so that they might be more cooperative in providing the United States with helpful information, said one Bush administration official.

The interrogations are being overseen by the FBI and CIA, the agencies considered to have the most expertise in hunting for fugitives and best equipped to ask detainees the right questions.

For weeks the United States has relied on what Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz acknowledged has largely been ''secondhand'' information on the possible whereabouts of bin Laden, Omar, and others, although those reports - from Afghan tribal officials and commanders in the Tora Bora region of eastern Afghanistan, where bin Laden was last reported to be hiding - have often been conflicting. US officials hope the inconsistency of those reports will begin to change. The prisoners ''are more likely to have immediate knowledge of people in Afghanistan, and obviously we're looking for that information,'' Wolfowitz said.

John Pike, a military and intelligence specialist at GlobalSecurity.org in Alexandria, Va., agrees that the most effective way to find the top leadership of Al Qaeda and the Taliban is to get people to talk. ''This should be similar to any organized crime operation,'' he said. ''You grab the small fish to get the big fish.''

Interrogations are important, Pike added, not just in learning about the top leaders of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, but what he called the groups' layer of ''upper middle management.'' ''It's clear that the US has a good handle on who the top two dozen guys are, but is less clear on the top 100,'' such as those who could take over if their leaders are killed or captured.

Identifying this kind of leadership ''regeneration'' is a concern, said Pike. ''I don't know if they know who those guys are. But the detainees know that.''

However, unlike spy satellites, aircraft, or ground equipment that can intercept radio transmissions and other communications, human intelligence operations are more often a miss than a hit.

Prisoners from the Afghan conflict are unlikely to be cooperative, officials say. Based on US experience with Al Qaeda members charged with the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Africa, ''these guys are very skilled liars,'' Wolfowitz said. ''They lie shamelessly; when you catch them in a lie, they go onto another lie.''

Moreover, the Al Qaeda organization is believed to be highly fragmented, meaning that some prisoners may know little beyond what they were directly assigned to do for the group.

In addition, human intelligence gathering has been widely regarded as a major weakness of the US spying machine because it has over the years chosen to invest resources heavily into new technology and equipment rather than having enough agents adequately trained in terrorist groups.

US intelligence also suffers from a lack of agents who speak the right languages - a key component to asking suspected terrorists the right questions. At the start of the Afghan campaign, US officials acknowledged they had few Arabic and Central Asian language speakers, and knew even less about the structure and make-up of Al Qaeda.

The strength of US intelligence remains its equipment: EP-3 aircraft can eavesdrop on radio signals and telephone and even email; Predator spy drones can detect movement on the ground; AC-130 gunships can pick up body heat and a fire in a cold cave.

While the United States has the most advanced eavesdropping apparatus in the world, defense officials acknowledge that radio traffic in the Tora Bora area has diminished to almost nothing since the last Al Qaeda positions were routed. Instead, hundreds of fighters have escaped into the wilderness or across the 1,400-mile border into Pakistan. ''I would try and dispel the notion,'' Wolfowitz added, ''that as good as our intelligence is ... that you can maintain the kind of surveillance over a large border area like that and watch people crossing.''

All the more reason why human intelligence may now begin to count more than technical information in the search for bin Laden and top Al Qaeda figures. ''You have to have someone tell you that the last place [bin Laden] was in this cave at this particular place,'' said Jeffrey Richelson, an intelligence specialist at the National Security Archive in Washington. Satellites and aircraft ''cannot fly overhead and get a reading that bin Laden is here. They can only help.''


Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.