The hot line from Virginia to Al Qaeda

LONDON, June 12, 2002 — The flaw in the U.S. communications system is a Pentagon network called the Global Broadcasting Service (GBS), a new military satellite system begun in 1996. The system was designed to "provide efficient, direct broadcast of digital multimedia information" and give "deployed warfighters ... high-bandwidth data imagery and video of critical information." It uses commercial broadcast satellite technology. But it was not originally intended to use ordinary commercial TV satellites.

Military communications experts say that after Sept. 11, operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan quickly occupied all available military satellite capacity, forcing the U.S. to purchase new channels for other operations — like the U.S. peacekeeping effort in Bosnia — on less well protected commercial satellites such as Loral’s Telstar network. Despite using the commercial satellites, the United States still had the ability to encrypt its broadcasts to prevent unwanted viewers from tuning in. Even if providing top-level military encryption systems had proven too expensive, standard civilian encryption systems are available, and are widely used by broadcasters to limit access to paying customers only.

It takes about three seconds for images from the spy planes and UAVs to travel to their ground control stations, come across to the United States and get relayed back to Europe. For the first leg of their journey, from the aircraft to the ground and over to the U.S. by a military satellite link, the pictures are protected by top-level military security systems. They are received at Fort Belvoir, Va., a key center in the U.S. Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System. They are then linked down the Potomac to the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic Area communications center at Norfolk, Va., the main base of the Global Broadcasting Service.

At Norfolk, the images stop being coded. The four channels containing spy plane and UAV images are sent up to the Telstar 11 satellite, returning to earth in Europe. They can be received anywhere in a “footprint” that extends from Madrid to Minsk, and from Bucharest to Birmingham, England. From anywhere in this area, the images can be put on the Internet, allowing access to them from anywhere in the world.

According to British intelligence specialist and former air force commander Andrew Brooks, of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, London, “It’s far better to have the bandwidth and the dedicated security of your own system…That is the problem and we haven’t yet faced it.”

“It is not the way we ought to be going … governments ought to be investing in the secure and guaranteed secure means of their own,” he added.

Ironically, although terrorist groups or supporters of accused war criminals can see the results of the spy plane missions at the same time as U.S. military commanders, the images do not get to U.S. Allies in time to be of any use. According to a Macedonian Air Force intelligence officer who served at Petrovec, “It takes about two hours” for pictures of border incursions to be handed over. “By then it’s too late,” he said. “They’ve gone.”

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