http://www.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,3604,736462,00.html Now showing on satellite TV: secret American spy photos Security lapse allows viewers to see sensitive operations
Duncan Campbell Thursday June 13, 2002 The Guardian
European satellite TV viewers can watch live broadcasts of peacekeeping and anti-terrorist operations being conducted by US spyplanes over the Balkans.
Normally secret video links from the American spies-in-the-sky have a serious security problem – a problem that make it easier for terrorists to tune in to live video of US intelligence activity than to get Disney cartoons or new-release movies.
For more than six months live pictures from manned spy aircraft and drones have been broadcast through a satellite over Brazil. The satellite, Telstar 11, is a commercial TV relay. The US spyplane broadcasts are not encrypted, meaning that anyone in the region with a normal satellite TV receiver can watch surveillance operations as they happen.
The satellite feeds have also been connected to the internet, potentially allowing the missions to be watched from around the globe.
Viewers who tuned in to the unintended attraction on Tuesday could watch a sudden security alert around the US army’s Kosovan headquarters, Camp Bondsteel in Urosevac. The camp was visited last summer by President Bush and his defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld.
A week earlier the spyplane had provided airborne cover for a heavily protected patrol of the Macedonian-Kosovan border, near Skopje. A group of apparently high-ranking visitors were accompanied by six armoured personnel carriers and a helicopter gunship.
Nato officials, whose forces in former Yugoslavia depend on the US missions for intelligence, at first expressed disbelief at the reports. After inquiring, a Nato spokesman confirmed: “We’re aware that this imagery is put on a communications satellite. The distribution of this material is handled by the United States and we’re content that they’re following appropriate levels of security.”
This lapse in US security was discovered last year by a British engineer and satellite enthusiast, John Locker, who specialises in tracking commercial satellite services. Early in November 2001 he routinely logged the new channels.
“I thought that the US had made a deadly error,” he said. “My first thought was that they were sending their spyplane pictures through the wrong satellite by mistake, and broadcasting secret information across Europe.”
He tried repeatedly to warn British, Nato and US officials about the leak. But his warnings were set aside. One officer wrote back to tell him that the problem was a “known hardware limitation”.
The flights, conducted by US army and navy units and AirScan Inc, a Florida-based private military company, are used to monitor terrorists and smugglers trying to cross borders, to track down arms caches, and to keep watch on suspect premises. The aircraft are equipped to watch at night, using infrared.
“We seem to be transmitting this information potentially straight to our enemies,” said one US military intelligence official who was alerted to the leak, adding: “I would be worried that using this information, the people we are tracking will see what we are looking at and, much more worryingly, what we are not looking at.
“This could let people see where our forces are and what they’re doing. That’s putting our boys at risk.”
Former SAS officer Adrian Weale, who served in Northern Ireland, told BBC Newsnight last night: “I think I’d be extremely irritated to find that the planning and hard work that had gone into mounting an operation against, for instance, a war crime suspect or gun runner was being compromised by the release of this information in the form that it’s going out in.”
Â· Duncan Campbell is a freelance investigative journalist and a member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, and not the Guardian correspondent of the same name