Monday, July 24, 2017

How Media Turned Common Intelligence Collection into an ‘Inside SPECOPS’ Story

The author at Fort Huachuca, Ariz. in 2009.
Media love to publish stories about U.S. special operations forces. Such stories garner attention and make it appear as if they are disclosing something that until now had been secret. But as with everything else coming from the press, all is often not as it seems. And a June 30 article from The Drive provides an example of how a media outlet turned common intelligence collection into an “Inside SPECOPS” type of story.

The Drive draws the reader to its article with the bold title and subtitle of, “‘Identity Intel Ops’ Turn US Special Operators Into Combat Detectives – Personal data, fingerprints, DNA, and more all help lead elite forces to their next target.” If the “Special Operators” didn’t work in attracting attention, the addition of “Combat Detectives” and “elite forces” probably did.

People who read the story are likely to be enthralled with the lengthy article, which cites a U.S. Special Operations Command document (obtained through the Freedom of Information Act), mentions the Joint Special Operations Command, references military operations (including the one that killed Osama bin Laden), uses lots of military jargon, has extensive links to other sources, and includes paragraphs like the following that appear to be revealing previously secret information.

The actual tasks sound a lot like something straight from an episode of a procedural crime drama on television. The document outlines six specific types of identity intelligence elite forces should be looking to gather at all times: biometric live scans, latent prints, DNA, facial images, trace materials, and documents and media. This information can be taken from individuals and sites that U.S. special operators in the course of “sensitive site exploitations” during operations, as well as from any potential person of interest, local employee, or foreign national who comes onto a facility run by elite forces at home or abroad. . . .
Still, the official descriptions make it clear that, if the circumstances at all allow it, elite troops are supposed to be collecting a significant amount of data. The biometric live scan, intended to be collected from living person as its name implies, sounds particularly comprehensive. The full profile includes full, rolled prints of all of the subject’s 10 fingers, scans of both of their irises, and a frontal view photograph. If “time and bandwidth are constrained” – all of this data is subsequently uploaded digitally to a central point for analysis – special operators may only take quick, flat prints and a photograph instead.

Sounds like it’s exciting and groundbreaking news, doesn’t it? But it is not.

The photograph at the top of this SCI analysis is a rare one of me performing official U.S. Army duties. Specifically, it is from 2009 when I was at Fort Huachuca, Ariz. where my unit attended the Weapons Intelligence Course prior to deploying to Iraq.

That training prepared my unit for our subsequent mission where we operated as weapons intelligence teams (WIT), or where we otherwise supported the weapons intelligence mission. A 2009 U.S. Air Force press release explains the WIT mission as of that time.

“We perform sensitive site exploitation of battlefield attacks where improvised explosive devices are used against coalition forces or Iraqi security force personnel and equipment,” said Capt. Daniel Tufts, a Combined Joint Task Force Troy WIT operations officer. “We are the CSI of the Iraqi battlefields.” . . .
“People leave their traces everywhere,” Captain Tufts explained. “We find that trace and exploit it to the fullest extent. Our main job is to collect the evidence; however, we too can recover biometrics to include DNA, fingerprints and facial recognition.”

That sounds quite similar to the main details about sensitive site exploitation that the 2017 The Drive article provides in its “inside look” at special operations.

Does that mean that WIT were or are part of “elite special operations forces?” No. They are general purpose forces assigned to complete an intelligence collection and analysis mission. (And the U.S. Department of Defense has been publicizing them for almost as long as they have existed within U.S. military forces.)

Tactics, techniques, and procedures evolve over time (as does terminology), and perhaps The Drive shows some of these changes. But for as insightful and novel as the overall article may appear, it really isn’t.

Intelligence collection is valuable. But not every act of intelligence collection is unique or new. Nor are special operations forces the only troops who collect intelligence.

And while articles that purport, but fail, to reveal inside looks at special operations may please anyone concerned with operational security and protecting classified information, they also show that it’s foolish to trust anything the media publishes.

Editorial Note: Updated on Dec. 21, 2017 to correct minor punctuation error in second paragraph, and minor grammatical error in fourth to last paragraph.

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