LONDON — The war on terrorism in Europe is being undermined by a military communications system that makes it easier for terrorists to tune in to live video of U.S. intelligence operations than to watch Disney cartoons or new-release movies.
For more than six months, live pictures from U.S. aerial spy missions have been broadcast in real time to viewers throughout Europe and the Balkans. The broadcasts are not encrypted, meaning that anyone in the region with a normal satellite TV receiver can spy on U.S. surveillance operations as they happen.
NATO, whose forces in former Yugoslavia depend on the U.S. missions for intelligence, first expressed disbelief. After inquiring, a NATO spokesman confirmed that “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.”
The Pentagon did not respond to requests for comment.
A British engineer who first discovered the security lapse has repeatedly warned the U.S. Defense Department, European command and naval headquarters and U.S. military field units. But his warnings were set aside. One officer wrote back to tell him that the problem was a “known hardware limitation.” The military “chain of command is aware of the issue,” the engineer was told, according to a copy of the response seen by ICIJ. “We appreciate your interest in persuing (sic) this matter,” he was told.
Five months later, the spy plane observations were still being broadcast to Europe.
The spy flights, conducted by U.S. 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. Both manned and unmanned aircraft are used to provide close up pictures, which can be taken from more than two miles away. The aircraft are equipped to watch at night, using infrared, and some are equipped to see through clouds using radar.
Live pictures from the spy planes have been transmitted over the Internet by satellite enthusiasts, and can be received anywhere in the world with an Internet connection.
“We seem to be transmitting this information potentially straight to our enemies,” according to one U.S. military intelligence official who was alerted to the leak.
“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,” the intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, added. “This could let people see where our forces are and what they’re doing. That’s putting our boys at risk.”
Former British special forces officer Adrian Weale, who served in Northern Ireland, told the BBC, which reported the Center’s findings, “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.”
“It’s very difficult to find these people,” he added. “We may only get one shot at doing it. We don’t want to blow it simply because we’re giving away too much information through these means.”
Terrorist groups, criminal organizations and elements hostile to the NATO Stabilization Force in Bosnia (SFOR) are known to be active in the region and to use electronic monitoring to counter and defeat U.S. and NATO operations.
Al Qaeda members and cells planning terrorist attacks on the United States also have been active in Bosnia.
SFOR raided the Sarajevo office of the Saudi High Commissioner for Aid to Bosnia last fall and found computer files containing photographs of terrorist targets and street maps of Washington with government buildings marked. The material included photos of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, the U.S.S. Cole and the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, both before and after they were bombed.
The raid coincided with the arrests of five Algerian-born men formerly employed by Arab humanitarian agencies operating in Bosnia. U.S. authorities say that they have evidence implicating the suspects in planned post-September 11 attacks on Western targets. They are being held at Camp X-ray in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
According to an Associated Press report, the SFOR raid mounted in October 2001 also found a computer program explaining how to use crop duster aircraft to spread pesticide, and material needed to forge U.S. State Department identification badges.
Two weeks ago, SFOR inspected two Bosnian Serb military radar sites and found “suspicious” monitoring equipment that appeared to be used to monitor NATO communications. An SFOR spokesman said that “a passive monitoring effort was underway.”
Eight days later, on May 28, SFOR raided the headquarters of the Bosnian Serb Air Force and seized computers and “a large number of documents” for analysis. SFOR’s commander, U.S. General John Sylvester, has ordered the Serbian air force grounded and its commander suspended.
On Feb. 28, 2002, SFOR mounted a massive military search operation near Celebici, in the Bosnian Serbian republic, in an attempt to seize accused war criminal Radovan Karadzic. The former Bosnian Serb political leader is wanted by the international criminal tribunal in the Hague, Netherlands, on charges of perpetrating the Srebrenica massacre, in which 8,000 Bosnian men and boys were slaughtered.
The Bosnian Serb monitoring stations are illegal under the terms of the Dayton peace accord. Asked if they might have been used to help Karadzic elude capture, SFOR spokesman Scott Lundy said that the sites uncovered last month might not have had “the capability required to monitor things such as the raids in Celebici.”
But any Bosnian Serb sympathizer equipped with a satellite receiver could have monitored any U.S. and SFOR spy flights supporting the capture operations and warned the fugitive where the spy planes were looking.
Although no direct evidence has emerged that Serbian or Albanian guerrillas have started using the compromised satellite links to counter operations of the Kosovo Stabilization Force (KFOR), it would be within their capabilities. According to a recently serving KFOR communications officer, “The Albanian guerrilla groups are not pleasant people. They make sure they are ahead of us all the time. They are sophisticated. They use radio scanners to monitor our communications. So when we get to an arms dump, it’s often empty.”
“A deadly error” is ignored
This lapse in U.S. security was discovered six months ago by a British engineer and satellite enthusiast, John Locker, who specializes in tracking commercial satellite services. Early in November 2001, he routinely logged that six new channels had appeared on the Telstar 11 commercial relay satellite, stationed over Brazil.
Telstar 11 distributes TV and radio broadcasts to Europe and North America. It is operated by Loral Skynet, a division of the Loral Corporation. The six new channels included two CNN broadcasts intended for U.S. forces and four live links from spy planes, both manned and unmanned.
“I thought that the U.S. had made a deadly error,” Locker told ICIJ. “My first thought was that they were sending their spy plane pictures through the wrong satellite by mistake, and broadcasting secret information across Europe.” Or, he guessed, they might have failed to turn on their coding systems.
Within a day, live transmissions on these channels showed directly where the spy planes were and what they were doing as they hunted for arms smugglers and drug traffickers operating in Bosnia and across Kosovo’s porous borders with neighboring Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro.
Not only are the planes transmitting exactly what they and military commanders are seeing, they also transmit the exact coordinates of what they are seeing, giving a position “fix” on their current target accurate to better than one meter. The position information is coded using the UTM (Universal Transverse Mercator) system, which could rapidly be converted into target data for guided weapons.
A few days after Locker found the new channels, references to the “military surveillance” channels being broadcast from the Telstar 11 satellite were published on the Internet, providing both satellite enthusiasts and anti-U.S. groups the essential “where to look” information. Locker said he then made “dozens” of phone calls and sent e-mail warnings to the U.S. Defense Department and other military commands.
The State Department referred his calls to the U.S. European Command. A U.S. European Command spokesman first told him, “we are at war, you know,” according to Locker. Then he added, “Let me ask you, do you know the difference between information and intelligence? What you are seeing is information.”
According to Defense Department guidelines, real-time aerial imagery from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is classified “Secret.” Astonished that U.S. authorities were continuing to disregard the breach of their own and NATO security, Locker described what was happening in a magazine for satellite enthusiasts, What Satellite TV, in May 2002. The magazine has subscribers around the world.
Even after senior NATO, U.S. and British military figures were made aware of the magazine article, nothing was done to prevent open reception of the spy plane transmissions. In an interview for BBC television set to air June 12th, Locker described his frustration at finding his warnings completely ignored.
The same Telstar satellite also carries Polish radio and television, NTV and British radio broadcasts to troops overseas. All these broadcasts are encrypted to prevent unauthorized reception. But the live products of the latest U.S. surveillance equipment, deployed in the front line of the war against terrorism and important peacekeeping operations, is freely available for all to see.