One day, an Afghan farmer might report seeing Osama bin Laden's convoy pass by. The next, a Taliban prisoner could tell where to find one of al-Qaeda's secret hide-outs.
From US Green Berets to Taliban-turned-informants to disaffected ethnic tribal leaders, there are thousands more people in Afghanistan able or willing to tell what they know now that the country's former repressive regime is on the defensive.
"You get something from those people," says Daniel Goure, an intelligence and defense expert at the Lexington Institute think tank in Washington.
Intelligence gatherers are getting a new pool of "human intelligence" -- something US forces lamented not having enough of at the outset of the Afghan war.
They could get clues that help point the way for special operations forces hunting down bin Laden, America's most wanted terrorist, and the Afghan rulers who sheltered him.
And from some of the newfound sources they'll get little or nothing of value.
"We don't conduct a commando operation on the basis of rumors from ex-Taliban soldiers," Goure said.
"Most of what operations are based on is technical intelligence," he said, referring to satellite photos, interceptions of radio or phone transmissions, data gathered by radar, spy planes and so on.
Still, good tips from humans can flesh out intelligence already gathered by military or CIA reconnaissance.
And now that the Pentagon is more actively promoting a US$25 million reward for information leading to bin Laden's capture, officials are expecting to get more of the useful and not so useful information from human sources.
"We get scraps of information from people on the ground saying that they understand that this has happened or that's happened," US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said this week.
"Where we get information that leads us to believe that al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders are gathered ... we have been targeting those facilities" with bombs, he said.
Long before the war started, US intelligence agents were working with Taliban opposition. And since the Taliban's rapid retreat from an estimated three-fourths of the country, tribal fighters or citizens previously afraid of the Taliban are more comfortable about coming forward, defense officials say. Taliban have been captured and thousands have defected, all potentially adding to the body of information.
US troops and intelligence operatives have more freedom to move across vast parts of Afghanistan, and spy planes fly freely in the skies over the country.
Several hundred US special forces commandos are on the ground setting up roadblocks, gathering information, looking for people and watching the movement of supplies. They've raided abandoned Taliban and al-Qaeda compounds to find documents, computer disks and other bits of information.
Drones and other spy equipment are getting more images and other data.
By intercepting a communication, the Pentagon learned last week that bin Laden operations chief Mohammed Atef and 50 other al-Qaeda members had been killed in an air strike.
The best human intelligence comes from firsthand accounts -- an al-Qaeda driver or bodyguard as opposed to someone repeating something he heard.
And the best of any intelligence is the most timely. Documents or the local farmer's tip indicating what bin Laden has done or where he has gone in the past are clearly less useful than knowing where he is at the present or where he might be at a future moment.
"Paper isn't as good as human, human isn't as good as real-time technical intelligence," Goure said.
"The `they went that-a-way' Western approach is not typically useful because there's a lag time," he said of sightings reported after the fact.
The armed Predator drone that the CIA has been operating for the first time in Afghanistan is an example, getting real-time information that forces can act on immediately because the unmanned aircraft is now equipped with a Hellfire anti-tank missile on each wing.
As more Afghans come forward with information, intelligence agents will have to continue to weed out the bad ones -- the opportunists who just want the reward or want to appear friendly and helpful as well as those who would purposefully plant false information.
During the war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s, bin Laden created a network of fortified bunkers and crisscrossing tunnels out of Afghanistan's natural caves and ancient underground irrigation trenches.
Though officials say he moves often, as of Tuesday he was believed to be hiding somewhere in a narrow, mountainous stretch of southeastern Afghanistan, ranging from near Kandahar in the south up to near Kabul and Jalalabad.
"The human intelligence we really lack is the kind ... at the strategic level ... from people who are in al-Qaeda -- and not just foot soldiers," said Goure.
"You could have 100 foot soldiers who tell you squat because they don't know anything," he said. "You want people who are in the ... leadership."
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