Outing Our Own Spies: When Journalism Does More Harm Than Good

A scoop about a U.S.-Taliban deal that could've prevented 9/11 is titilating, but the real story is that a reporter broke the cover of an American accomplice in Afghanistan

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Vanity Fair contributing editor David Rose has a killer story:

in 1999 the Taliban had granted license to an American company, Afghan Wireless Communications, to construct a cell-phone, and, Internet system in Afghanistan. Had the secret deal, named Operation Foxden, been completed, the U.S. would have had complete access to al-Qaeda and Taliban calls and e-mails in a matter of months.

It sounds extraordinary--the September 11th attacks might have been prevented, Rose reports, if only our intelligence agencies could have gotten their acts together! But this story is actually shocking for entirely different reasons.

For starters, Rose names Ehsan Bayat as the founder of Afghan Wireless Communication Company, which is still active in Afghanistan today. Bayat also played a crucial role in founding the Ariana Television Network, which is one of Afghanistan's most popular TV stations. While it's not surprising Bayat, as an entrepreneur, was seeking ways to build a business under Taliban rule, it is shocking to have him outed as a willing accomplice of the U.S. intelligence community. In fact, it is downright dangerous.

The revelation that the Taliban wanted to create a telecommunications and internet infrastructure in Afghanistan is at odds with their typical western caricature as mindless 7th century death-zombies. Without excusing their deplorable human rights record, it's difficult to argue that they had no interest in the governance of their country (as has been alleged in countless books about them), or that the U.S. was unwilling to participate in the redevelopment of the country pre-9/11.

The real problem with Rose's article is not just that Bayat was outed as working for the CIA, but rather the enormous consequences that result from officials blabbing about covert operations to the press. Almost every single American company now operating in a dangerous part of the world will be suspected, justifiably, of working for the Central Intelligence Agency. That will have enormous consequences not just for the physical safety of the employees of those firms, but also for the prospect of American business.

There are parallels here to the CIA's use of a fake vaccination campaign in Pakistan. In that case, the Obama administration's desperate attempt to prove their own cleverness placed every single humanitarian worker in Pakistan in considerable danger: locals, or even militants, who might have permitted those workers to travel freely and provide medical care without harassment now must wonder: is this doctor actually a spy who will sell me out? It's difficult to overstate just how damaging that revelation is.

Similarly, now the Taliban have yet more reason to attack Afghanistan's mobile phone network. It currently is a painful back-and-forth: in some cases, they can be persuaded to back off their phone bans, but in some cases they try to enact nation-wide shutdowns. If they think the CIA/NSA/FBI has installed backdoors in all the towers and switches, what reason would they have no to simply begin destroying the towers in earnest?

As much as it appears like Rose's article is score-settling, as if some official who felt burned a decade ago wanted to even things out, this is a serious problem: it puts at risk every single civilian, businessman, and development worker in the country. Business, famine relief and medical care, and other kinds of non-military support services are one of the few things the insurgents (by and large) and the Coalition can agree on allowing to operate in the country. Chancing to throw all of that away just to score points on a decade-old argument is completely baffling.

Operational Security is a difficult concept to square with the ideals of transparency and public relations (which are crucial to an elected government). It is made even more difficult when senior officials get a wounded ego. But the consequences of breaking this operational security are dire. Even when the covert operation in question is a moral abhorrence like the CIA's fake vaccination, publicizing that causes far more harm in the long run than the short term good of seeming clever. In this case, going public with details about a perfectly ethical covert operation carries serious risk: placing in danger the very people our agencies rely on to take action, and poisoning the well for future business and economic development in the country. Once you get past the gee-whiz of spies and whatnot, it is a lose-lose all around.