Capt. Vivian Gembara, Esq. - 4/11/2005
"Humint" --- this military shorthand for "human intelligence" has entered the vernacular. It is on the tongues of every politician, agency head and military leader. It is the one thing that those on the left and the right agree has impaired the U.S.'s ability to combat terrorism. Caught off guard by the September 11th attacks, we have seen the errors of our ways --- too much focus on technology and too little focus on spies and other human sources. While Washington has seized on the issue with the zeal of the newly converted, rhapsodizing about the need to cultivate humint, there still seems to be no understanding of the urgency of the issue or the very essence of it. We are missing significant opportunities now in the war on terror and no amount of goodwill can undo the damage caused when you ignore one of the principles of human intelligence gathering- 'listen to your men and women in the field.'
Imagine for a minute being dropped from a helicopter into a place where you didn't know anyone, couldn't speak the language and had only a vague idea about the terrain. Add hostile natives armed to the teeth and you begin to understand the circumstances U.S Special Forces operate in daily. The military's finest, they also possess that most elusive and valuable of qualities --- near-perfect instincts. That U.S. officials chose to ignore one of their early suggestions in Iraq is evidence of their own shortsightedness as well as the nation's still uneasy relationship with the notion of humint. Test
In April 2003, the U.S. government rejected an offer that they may already regret. The tender came from non-Iraqi soldiers based in Iraq - all members of the NLA, a militant wing of the NCRI (National Council of the Resistance of Iran), a group intent on overthrowing Iran's current Islamic fundamentalist regime and replacing it with a democratic government. As exiles in Iraq, they aim to overthrow Iran's current Islamic fundamentalist regime and replace it with a democratic government. The NLA found a generous patron in Saddam Hussein. The former dictator helped fund their military and gave them key property throughout Iraq. In return, they protected the border against Iranian infiltration.
U.S. Special Forces were also first to encounter the NLA and to understand their value as potential human intelligence sources. From the start, it was clear this was no "mom and pop" army. Special Forces found the NLA waiting for them in neatly consolidated units. Hundreds of NLA tanks were positioned in the "surrender" posture described in U.S. leaflets. They offered to work alongside the U.S. to stabilize the country in exchange for support in their opposition to Iran's mullahs.
Classified as a terrorist organization by the State Department in 1997, the NLA bears the burden of an outdated and inaccurate label. Talk of working with this "terrorist organization" triggered alarm bells in diplomatic circles and resulted in U.S. officials summarily rejecting any talk of negotiation. Led by General Ray Odierno, 4th Infantry Division Commander, we were tasked with delivering the bad news. The NLA we encountered outside of Baqubah were just as the Special Forces described - fluent in English, Arabic and Farsi; familiar with the terrain and eager to work with us. Meetings that we anticipated would run several hours wound up lasting two days. Our prepared non-negotiable terms proved far more difficult to deliver when faced with the magnitude of our own lost opportunity.
The following day, 4th ID soldiers began disarming and delivering NLA soldiers to Camp Ashraf for interrogation. They remain there today. Until they can shed their terrorist label, the NLA will remain under the watchful eye of U.S. soldiers at Camp Ashraf.
U.S. officials' current reluctance to re-evaluate the NLA's status is in keeping with the missed opportunity of April 2003. At the time, the error of disbanding the Iraqi Army and security forces was clear as lawlessness led to rampant looting and destruction of Iraqi government facilities. Fully equipped with tanks, weaponry and battalions of trained soldiers, the NLA's offer answered a need that was vastly underestimated. Our immediate refusal was naïve. It would have been a far more useful to our troops, and our intelligence efforts, to work with the NLA. Under our direction, they could have secured buildings and provided us with another set of eyes and ears within the communities. Surely their feedback and willingness to help in this capacity far outweighs any information we could have hoped to reap from Camp Ashraf interrogations. Adding insult to injury however is the inconsistent and uneven handling of other militias in Iraq. Despite known ties to the Iranian regime, U.S. officials permitted the Badr Corps, a militant Shiite wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution, to remain both intact and active.
While shortsighted policy decisions caused us to miss the opportunity then, the stakes are even higher now. The NLA is a potentially indispensable intelligence source on Iran. Our current challenges with Iraq have been attributed to a lack of credible intelligence. By comparison, Iran's known nuclear capabilities make intelligence much more crucial in the event of war. The recent admission by U.S. officials that they had employed UAV planes over Iran for several years only underscores the real threat that Iran poses. It was unwise not to take advantage of a valuable human resource as our soldiers battled daily in Iraq. It is merely reckless to continue to detain and alienate the NLA as we face a more mysterious and formidable threat in Iran. Though September 11th left us wearier of over reliance on technology and military might, the U.S. handing of the NLA, and other potential human intelligence resources, hardly suggests we are that much wiser.
Captain Vivian Gembara in JAG forces as an attorney for the U.S. military for 4 years, and was deployed in Iraq for 12 months beginning in April 2003. During that time, she participated in negotiations for the eventual capitulation of the NLA. She was a member of the 4th Infantry Division team that negotiated and drafted the capitulation agreement between the United States and the People’s Mujahedeen (MEK), an armed pro-Iranian opposition force. Cap. Gembara was awarded 7 medals, 2 bars and other honors. Prior to her military service, she received a J.D. (Juris Doctor) degree from William and Mary School of Law.