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Planning to Exploit Iran

Thinking in advance about post-action DOCEX should be part of any military plan.

12:00 AM, Apr 20, 2006 • By MICHAEL TANJI
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NO ONE KNOWS whether or not an Operation Iranian Freedom is in the cards. A good deal of focus is already being placed on military planning. But it is also worth asking what America is doing to prepare for the trove of documents and other media that a newly liberated Iran could produce.

Knowing something about how we prepared, from a captured-media perspective, for postwar Iraq, it is safe to say that lessons were learned.

It is important that we plan to exploit captured Iranian documents, recordings, and computers. There is no point in the foreseeable future when the United States will not be able to physically defeat an enemy. The problem is that most of our major adversaries are in places where we have a hard time recruiting spies. Without spies, we have few ways of knowing what the man behind the curtain is actually doing and whether or not we should put our military might to use. Under such conditions we are forced to justify our calls for action based in part on the findings of third parties (who have their own agendas) and inspectors (who can be led around to chase geese).

Consequently we are forced into a twisted and deadly cart-before-horse situation: The only way to show the world that you were justified is to produce, after-the-fact, your enemy's own work as evidence.

Iran could produce considerably more exploitable media than Iraq did. From a sheer numbers perspective--Iran is three times the size and more than double the population of Iraq--the amount of material that would need to be secured and exploited in Iran has the potential to make the DOCEX storehouses in Baghdad look like self-storage units. The exploitation experts that the intelligence community and military services have managed to keep are still suffering burn-out from Iraq and Farsi linguist bench strength is probably not very deep. Technical sophistication could also be a serious problem: It was an Iranian laptop that U.S. intelligence officials were using to help convince the IAEA that Tehran's uranium enrichment program was more than meets the eye. Such programs demand the kind of computing systems that few in the intelligence community have managed to run, much less planned to seize and exploit.

This isn't to suggest that the needs of the document-exploitation mission should be a primary driver for war plans, but merely to point out that, short of an intelligence coup, giving short shrift to any plans designed to secure the Iranian regime's paper and computer trail could be a costly mistake.

Michael Tanji is a former senior intelligence officer and an associate of the Terrorism Research Center. He opines on intelligence and security issues at blog.groupintel.com.