As covered in the previous post, there's definitely something afoot in Iraq that's reducing the number of attacks on US forces. (Less so on Iraqis.) So what could it be?
If Woodward's comments are any clue, it's a technological innovation. Woodward compared it to the invention of the tank and other military technologies, which means it's probably not merely a change in technique. While US military and civilian personnel have been operating in a more joint fashion, following the example of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan. However, this joint approach is nothing new: in US military experience, it's at least as old as the CORDS program in Vietnam. And again, if Woodward's hints are any guide, we're on the trail of something that has some kind of technological angle.
We might increase our chances of finding the mystery innovation if we re-think what makes it secret. Rather than limiting the search to things we don't know exist, we might also include things we know exist, but don't know exactly how effective they are. The secret, therefore, may be the effectiveness of some new technology, or how it's used.
To extend the tank example, the big innovation of WWII wasn't the tank, since armored fighting vehicles first appeared on the battlefields of WWI. Instead, what changed by WWII is how national militaries used the tank. Rather than treating them as an infantry support weapon, tanks became their own type of unit. Rather than infantry being the "arm of decision," tanks became the most important instrument of maneuver warfare. Rather than tying down tanks to infantry units, armies created special divisional and regimental organizations centered around the tank.
The secret new counterinsurgency weapon, therefore, might be something right in the open, but perhaps not receiving much attention in the US press. That makes me wonder if the Big Secret is the biometric database.
The information weapon
The US and Iraqi militaries have been building on top of the national registries of Iraqis started under the Ba'athis regime, updating it and adding further information such as biometric data (fingerprints, retinal scans, etc.). Iraqi and American forces use it to identify criminals and insurgents at checkpoints, during sweeps, and other occasions.
It's clear how this biometric database might be very effective at identifying the people who have been killing Americans. With more resources and technical skill than their Iraqi counterparts, US military personnel might have enjoyed more success at finding the people attacking them than those attacking Iraqi security forces.
Woodward indicated that the secret program, whatever it is, has been critical in helping US forces "to locate, target and kill leaders of al-Qaeda in Iraq, insurgent leaders, renegade militia leaders." That implies the innovation is some sort of information gathering technology--or, perhaps, an information analysis tool, or something that makes information more readily available, like the biometric database.
Improving the biometric database might also fit the "Manhattan Project" comparison Woodward makes. Over time, Iraq and American officials have needed to add data, and also to improve the data mining tecniques used to identify potential targets. While similar efforts, such as the ridiculous Total Information Awareness project, might have failed, Americans in Iraq might have had the resources, incentives, and sense of realism needed to make this data warehouse project succeed.
If my guess is correct, it's also clear why the US government would want to keep the success of this program under wraps. Iraqis with access to the database might abuse it. Even if religious or clan affiliation were not recorded, it might be possible for Iraqi officials to infer it from the data that is available.
And the potential problems don't stop there. US officials outside of Iraq can use the same information to track Iraqis abroad, including in the United States. And why stop at Iraqis? Why not use the same resource to track suspected Iranian agents who move in and out of Iraq, and plenty of other places, too.
The biggest problem with the biometric database, of course, is the risk that it may not only legitimize monitoring inside the United States, but also expand it. If it works in Iraq, why not use the same sort of biometric database to track suspected domestic or internaional terrorists in the United States?
Therefore, if the biometric database is Woodward's secret program, US military officials have plenty of reasons to avoid talking about it.