“This Isn’t the Assassination Surveillance Drone You’re Looking For”

[YouTube]vzcWPKAv2Ow[/YouTube]

Before you read this David Sanger/Scott Shane piece reporting that the RQ-170 Sentinel drone that just went down in Iran was, “among other missions, [] looking for tunnels, underground facilities or other places where Iran could be building centrifuge parts or enrichment facilities,” I invite you to review what David Sanger has been writing for the last few months. Sure, he’s been the key person orchestrating the IAEA Iran report story, going back months. There’s also this story, curiously mixing reporting on the capture of the drone with a report citing sources describing surveillance photos of the Iranian missile testing base conveniently blown up while Iran’s top missile expert was there.

And then there’s this story from last month, which is or was titled “The Secret War with Iran.” It suggests how the assassins targeting Iran’s nuclear scientists knew exact details of their daily commutes, and then went on to describe the centrality of drones to our surveillance efforts against Iran.

COMMUTING to work in Tehran is never easy, but it is particularly nerve-racking these days for the scientists of Shahid Beheshti University. It was a little less than a year ago when one of them, Majid Shahriari, and his wife were stuck in traffic at 7:40 a.m. and a motorcycle pulled up alongside the car. There was a faint “click” as a magnet attached to the driver’s side door. The huge explosion came a few seconds later, killing him and injuring his wife.

On the other side of town, 20 minutes later, a nearly identical attack played out against Mr. Shahriari’s colleague Fereydoon Abbasi, a nuclear scientist and longtime member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Perhaps because of his military training, Mr. Abbasi recognized what was happening, and pulled himself and his wife out the door just before his car turned into a fireball. Iran has charged that Israel was behind the attacks — and many outsiders believe the “sticky bombs” are the hallmarks of a Mossad hit.

[snip]

Iran may be the most challenging test of the Obama administration’s focus on new, cheap technologies that could avoid expensive boots on the ground; drones are the most obvious, cyberweapons the least discussed. It does not quite add up to a new Obama Doctrine, but the methods are defining a new era of nearly constant confrontation and containment. Drones are part of a tactic to keep America’s adversaries off balance and preoccupied with defending themselves. And in the past two and a half years, they have been used more aggressively than ever. There are now five or six secret American drone bases around the world.

And oh yeah. Sanger was part of the team that claimed US and Israeli credit for StuxNet.

So David Sanger, the (American and Israeli) intelligence community’s chief mouthpiece to boast about their latest victories against Iran, by-lined this story from Boston (rather than his home base of DC) to tell us the Sentinel drone was surveilling Iran’s suspected nuclear sites, using its isotope-sniffing powers.

In addition to video cameras, independent experts say the drone almost certainly carries communications intercept equipment and sensors that can detect tiny amounts of radioactive isotopes and other chemicals that can give away nuclear research.

But the real advantage of the Sentinel drone, Sanger and Shane tell us, is the ability to see who’s onsite when.

While an orbiting surveillance satellite can observe a location for only a few minutes at a time, a drone can loiter for hours, sending a video feed as people move about the site. Such a “pattern of life,” as it is called, can give crucial clues to the nature of the work being done, the equipment used and the size of the work force.

Actually, we knew that. Here’s the kind of information the Sentinel presumably gave us about Osama bin Laden’s compound.

Agents, determining that Kuwaiti was living there, used aerial surveillance to keep watch on the compound, which consisted of a three-story main house, a guesthouse, and a few outbuildings. They observed that residents of the compound burned their trash, instead of putting it out for collection, and concluded that the compound lacked a phone or an Internet connection. Kuwaiti and his brother came and went, but another man, living on the third floor, never left. When this third individual did venture outside, he stayed behind the compound’s walls. Some analysts speculated that the third man was bin Laden, and the agency dubbed him the Pacer.

In our assassination of Osama bin Laden, it seems, we used the Sentinel to learn the daily routine of everyone in the compound. Just the kind of information we’ve used to assassinate key Iranian scientists.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure the Sentinel is looking for secret nuclear or other military sites to bomb, “among other missions.” But I also suspect the reason government sources have been so forthcoming with confirmation about the Sentinel and its role in hunting nuclear sites is to distract from its role in hunting human beings. Not to mention any Israeli role in using information collected using the Sentinel to carry out these assassinations on the ground.

We’re all still pretending these Iranians, whose assassinations and attempted assassinations depended on knowing key details about their day to day travels, just died in freak accidents (Sanger even cites sources making that claim about the missile base!). Meanwhile, our spooks would like to take this opportunity to boast about the Sentinel’s ability to track nuclear sites.

You see, these nuclear-isotope sniffing drones are not the assassination surveillance drones you’re looking for.

Update: Iran just released video of the drone.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

43 replies
  1. orionATL says:

    at some point, perhaps soon, the iranians will calculate that they have lost so much, and stand to lose so much more, that they will turn to the military option most frequently used by the weak – what should properly be called “counter-terrorism”, that is, they will begin countering our own very expensive, high-tech terrorism against iran and its citizens with their own low-cost terrorism against american govt and business buildings and against american businessmen, diplomats, soldiers, tourists, and students.

  2. MadDog says:

    EW, a better video link is here over at BBC News. The one you have just gets me whatever is being live broadcast right now by Press TV.

    As one can see in the BBC News version (assuming that the displayed RQ-170 is real and not a mock-up), the RQ-170 is in almost pristine condition so it must have either landed itself or was landed by someone other than the US.

  3. rugger9 says:

    OT but needs its own post, if for no other reason than the RW Wurlitzer will be flogging this for days:

    http://thinkprogress.org/security/2011/12/08/384765/air-force-dumped-remains-of-274-troops-in-virginia-landfill/

    Ye gods, after Walter Reed, bodies as cargo, and being cheap on the death benefit [it was 10,000] until being shamed out of it these Bu$hie swine still consider themselves [and only themselves] as patriots. This occurred from 2004 until 2008, well before Obama took office.

  4. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: A couple of other thoughts:

    If real, the pristine condition of the RQ-170 means that all of its secrets are totally open to anyone who’d want to exploit them.

    Stealth coatings, reconnaissance packages, communication capabilities, flight control systems, and tons and tons of US crypto applications.

    If the RQ-170 had a technology value and advantage to the US, it is totally fookin’ gone now.

  5. scribe says:

    Not that the ability to sniff out isotopes and the mere presence of nuke material is a new technology. Recall 30 plus years ago the controversy over the presence of a Soviet mechanized brigade in Cuba, with the threat that it was nuclear-armed, a replay of October 1962 dancing in Rethuglican-crafted nightmares.

    Carter announced we knew there were no nukes b/c we were able to detect their signature from our aerial recon and had not detected such.

  6. rugger9 says:

    Why aren’t Russia and China in the story here? I’m sure they are behind the takedown in some concrete way, equipment, perhaps?

  7. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: An additional thought:

    Remember all those supposed anonymous US official sources who claimed US satellite-based evidence of the RQ-170 crashsite? Yeah, those.

    If what is being shown at that BBC News link is real, then we are again calling bullshit on those anonymous US official sources.

    And more importantly, who the fook were they trying to fool? Not apparently the Iranians.

    Shabby disinformation work anonymous US official sources!

  8. BoxTurtle says:

    @rugger9: My thoughts exactly. It seems likely to me that Chinese equiptment was used. They have the largest cyberwarfare project in the world and they’d LOVE to be able to test without raising US ire.

    Would ObamaLLP use the potential loss of drone tech to China or Iran as a pretext to hit? They might.

    None of the assassination’s I’ve read about would require real time intelligence. But I suspect the drones would be very handy figuring out daily schedules to pick a time and place.

    Boxturtle (Anybody want to try to FOIA the videos we’ve likely got of the “accidents”?)

  9. BoxTurtle says:

    @MadDog: Alternative explaination: This was very well planned by the Chinese, they were ready with a fake crashsite in case Obama decided to bomb. And we were fooled.

    Boxturtle (never blame malice for what can be adequately explained by stupidity)

  10. PeasantParty says:

    Hmmm. Crashed and destroyed to whole and obsconded!

    And they were telling us that Chavez was a Mad Man, crazed with paranoia when he told the world that the CIA was after him!

  11. Tom Allen says:

    So, this is an impeachable offense, right? If we still lived in a functioning democracy, anyone involved in ordering these secret assassinations of civilian researchers in other countries would have impeachment hearings held about them in the House and, if impeached, a trial in the Senate. That would apply to everyone, President, Veep, Supreme Court, House, Senate, and so on, yes? Then the voters in 2012 would decide what to do next. Just sayin’.

  12. lysias says:

    In his latest “Deep Background” column in the December 2011 issue of The American Conservative, former CIA officer Philip Giraldi says that Obama recently issued a new secret finding authorizing stepped-up covert action against Iran, and the ostensible basis for this finding was apparently the scary Iranian assassination plot:

    After the alleged Iranian government plot to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador in Washington, the White House issued a finding to the intelligence community authorizing stepped-up covert action against Iran. A “finding” is top-level approval for secret operations considered to be particularly politically sensitive.

  13. MadDog says:

    Regarding the size of the RQ-170 as I was commenting about in an earlier post, this latest NYT article has Iran describing it:

    “…On state television, the video clip was narrated by a voice saying that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and army had “collaborated to shoot down the plane.” The unidentified narrator gave the drone’s dimensions as 26 meters (about 85 feet) from wingtip to wingtip, 4.5 meters (15 feet) from nose to tail and nearly 2 meters (6 feet) in height. The narrator also said the aircraft had “electronic surveillance systems and various radars” and was “a very advanced piece of technology…”

  14. eCAHNomics says:

    @rugger9: As BoxTurtle sez, Russia or China prolly hacked into the software, causing it to land inside Iran. And now they will reverse engineer it. LOL. Sauces, geese, ganders, or pick your own cliche.

  15. MadDog says:

    While some supposed “experts” are questioning the authenticity of the Iranian pictures and video of the downed RQ-170:

    “…John Pike, an expert on military hardware at the GlobalSecurity.org thinktank in northern Virginia, said it was highly unlikely the Iranians had the technology to wrest control of the drone’s navigation and bring it down so softly that it was left with barely a scratch.

    “It looks like a parade float. For one thing, it looked remarkably intact for something that crashed, and the wings are drooping the wrong way.

    “On the real thing, the wings go up at the end. This one’s wings droop down,” Pike said…”

    This is from Fox News (my apologies for the sourcing):

    Official Confirms Authenticity of Iranian TV Images Showing Lost U.S. Drone

    A senior U.S. official has confirmed to Fox News that images aired by Iranian state television do in fact show the secret U.S. drone that went down last week in eastern Iran.

    “Yep, that’s it,” the official told Fox News. “And it’s intact…”

  16. person1597 says:

    Wouldn’t it be ironic if it was something stupid… like running out fuel?! If the tanks were empty, the landing was forced not by an enemy action but by, um, pilot error… aka an “innocent malfunction”.

    We don’t get to see the undercarriage but the dent on the wing’s leading edge suggests a bumpy landing with obstacles. Still, it was a “good landing” — one where the pilot walks away (in abject embarrassment). Looks like the control surfaces were still functioning all the way down to the ground — the spoilers were unlocked as seen on TV.

    The counter-measures to scuttle the craft could have been invoked if there was an actual engagement so it seems like ground controllers were more interested in what was happening at the target rather than on the plane. Alternatively, if the abort mechanism depended on fuel ignition (conceivable with Jet-B or other hi altitude formulations as opposed to a dead weight explosive) then that option would have been unavailable in such a circumstance.

    Likely that the UAV has a better than 20-1 glide ratio, so Cruising at 50,000′ that’s a 200 to 300 mile exit strategy. Any panic over fuel exhaustion would have met with an urgent best-glide to the east. Except for those pesky northeasterly trade winds and perhaps the winds aloft that day.

    It certainly could have been a live hack, but as you folks suspect, it could also have been a trojan.

    Or, just stupidity as Box Turtle suggests.

    “Missed it by that much!”

  17. orionATL says:

    @lysias:

    the real reason why iran was put on the front burner this fall was, i suspect, associated with the republican defeat of the dem running for the seat vacated by rep weiner (and the arguments the gop used to engineer that resounding defeat).

    or to put it crassly, it was about cadging campaign contributions from wealthy jews, and working for jewish votes in florida and new york.

  18. shekissesfrogs says:

    @scribe:
    A similar thing happened regarding the North Korean Nukes, the chief scientist responsible for analyzing the data refuted the rhetoric of the UNSC/IEAE/US that contradicted his secret report, was found dead at the bottom of a stairwell in geneva.

  19. MadDog says:

    @person1597:

    “…Likely that the UAV has a better than 20-1 glide ratio…”

    Uhmmm…I think not. As I commented earlier this week:

    “…All “flying wing” aircraft are inherently unstable…”

    If out of fuel and no longer with power to operate the fly-by-wire computerized flight controls, that inherent instability would mean that the RQ-170 had all the glide characteristics of a boulder.

    Given the apparent pristine condition in the Iranian pictures and video, as I said earlier at # 2 in this post:

    “…it must have either landed itself or was landed by someone other than the US.”

  20. person1597 says:

    @MadDog:

    As far as dead-stick performance goes, back-up power from a battery or other alternative source is a reasonable safety precaution for a fly-by wire platform. For example, a deployable ram air turbine powered the 787 avionics during a flight test incident recently.

    It is hard to conscience an aircraft design where the flight controls are unusable during a flameout, although windmilling the turbine back to life might require an extended dive at 300kts, so assuming there wasn’t problem with the electronic engine controls, such a maneuver would require full control surface functionality to succeed. It isn’t likely that there would be no recourse during a flameout or fuel exhaustion event. But who knows…

    The battery back up system would only have to work long enough to restart the engine or land the puppy. At 250 w-hr/kg, a pint-sized lithium ion battery could keep the control surface servo systems going long enough to return to the safety of the ground.

  21. MadDog says:

    @person1597: Yeah, I agree the RQ-170 could have had a battery backup system to power the flight controls in case of engine flame-out or fuel depletion. In fact, I would guess one would call it a major design screw-up if it didn’t.

  22. MadDog says:

    @person1597: And since you appear to have some familiarity with aircraft, let me ask you a question that EW and I had been batting around.

    In an earlier post, we were discussing what if the RQ-170 was flown during daylight hours and whether it would then be visible to the Mark 1 eyeball. My last response of “mostly yes” to EW is here.

    Now that we’ve learned that the RQ-170 wingspan is about 85 feet (see my comment at # 14 above), that reinforces my belief that even at an supposed altitude ceiling of 50,000 feet, the RQ-170 could be seen.

    The Boeing 777 has a wingspan a bit more than twice that (200 feet) and is easily visible to the naked eye when cruising at 35,000+ feet.

    Add another 15,000 feet and I bet we could still see the 777, and I believe the RQ-170 as well.

    Add in the possibility of contrails with the RQ-170’s jet engine, its almost white color scheme, potentially the sound of its jet engine, and the fact that it would “loiter” over a Iranian target area, I would reaffirm my opinion that flying the RQ-170 during daylight hours over Iran would be a damn stupid and risky thing to do.

  23. person1597 says:

    @MadDog:
    There are claims that the service ceiling of the RQ-170 is up to 90,000′.

    I’m not sure I believe that number, but the wings are fairly high aspect ratio suggesting good aerodynamic performance even at high altitudes. The U-2, built by the same folks, operated at 70,000′. The SR-71 flew higher still.

    It isn’t inconceivable that the flight computer can keep the the wings from stalling or exceeding red-line as the thin atmosphere makes these two limits converge. It takes a computer to keep the bird stable to within a few knots. Maybe they pushed the envelope too far and lost control in an unrecoverable way. Chuck Yeager’s ride in the rocket powered F104 is a good reminder of the demon in the sky.

    Given the likely need for daytime observation suggests that the mission involved loitering over the target area. It seems possible that the aircraft was visible either by ground based radar arrays or optical sensors (LIDAR) as you suggest. The stealth feature is defeated when the radar transmitter and receiver are separated by enough distance to catch scattered reflections.

    The contrail issue applies to all stealth aircraft. The designers minimize this effect with careful airfoil design and power plant/fuel optimizations.

    If the bird was discovered and subjected to electronic warfare, a force-down would be good propaganda and not impossible. Since the infidels were caught off-guard and the plane landed (according to blog postings) 140 miles inland, there are few “good” explanations.

    I’ll go with the simplest — controller error, as in, the autopilot wasn’t chewing Beeman’s and lost its cool at altitude.

    As far as the risk of violating forbidden airspace goes, perhaps some congresscritter was buying puts on LMT.

  24. orionATL says:

    @MadDog:

    no flight

    ‘cept at night?

    does that not rule out ew’s assassination data gathering theory?

    but is this plane really a jet?

    jets require so much fuel.

    i thought most drone reconissance aircraft flew slow and low.

  25. MadDog says:

    @person1597: I’ll buy most of your response, but this part still seems a wee bit problematic:

    …The contrail issue applies to all stealth aircraft. The designers minimize this effect with careful airfoil design and power plant/fuel optimizations…

    I would think that regardless of airfoil design and power plant/fuel optimization, you still have a jet engine blowing extremely hot air into an extremely cold environment. Heck, we here in winter in Minnesota make our own contrails just breathing at ground level. *g*

  26. MadDog says:

    @orionATL: Yeah, the RQ-170 is indeed powered by a jet engine.

    As for the fuel issue, like most jets, a lot of the fuel is carried in the wings. The RQ-170 is mostly wing, so therefore it is mostly fuel as well.

    Still, I think that you are right that a jet-powered drone like the RQ-170 is probably less able to stay aloft for long periods of time compared to its propeller-driven counterparts like the Predator and Reaper.

  27. person1597 says:

    @MadDog: Minimizing contrails must drive folks batty.

    Minimizing infrared signatures on an exhaust plumes uses fluid injection so maybe there is a special mixture that reduces water condensation as well.

    Whenever my faith in God is shaken, I think of the miracle of anti-freeze.
    — Cesar, “The Crepes of Wrath

    Googling the topic produced this study — and another in pdf format.

  28. thatvisionthing says:

    @MadDog: From the Moon of Alabama link above @17:

    This RQ-170 drone type became known as the “Beast of Kandahar” when it first observed there four years ago. Flying U.S. stealth drones in Afghanistan is obvioulsy necessary to escape the Taliban’s radars (not).

  29. thatvisionthing says:

    @ew: “nuclear-isotope sniffing drones” —

    Maybe they should try them in Pennsylvania? From antiwar.com in October:

    http://antiwar.com/radio/2011/10/20/grant-f-smith-23/
    http://original.antiwar.com/smith-grant/2011/10/19/americans-pay-dearly-to-maintain-israels-nuclear-secrets/
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Apollo_Affair

    not sure if I follow the story — 1960s NUMEC plutonium plant in Apollo PA, careless radioactive waste storage, 1969 spill, israel, cia, fbi, army corps of engineers — only the cia knows where the spill is located and they won’t tell the army corps of engineers for cleanup even now?

    so… sniff?

  30. person1597 says:

    @MadDog: Thanks for the link. Interesting details — the leading edges of the wing look a bit chafed as in a belly landing. The one big dent on the wing may have been caused by an immovable object (but the angle of penetration was from above — so not a rock necessarily but something fairly linear such as a branch or trunk).

    The wing roots are covered with a sealant — likely some sort of tape — implying that the wings are detachable and need to be sealed after assembly. This would be necessary for proper laminar flow.

    The black stripes on the wing looks like electrical tape but with the HD images, one can see that they are viewing ports. What’s curious is that there appear to be light emitters at the top of the slots. It could be an artifact of the photograph, but they appear slightly illuminated as if the power supply was still functioning.

    This could mean that the captors are afraid it is booby-trapped and will proceed with great caution. I’m sticking with the out of gas excuse until someone can show otherwise.

  31. Mayor Bongo says:

    Iran once photoshopped pictures of its missile launches. Wanna bet the so-called “captured” drone in media pictures i made of balsa wood and fabric?

    Here’s another theory? What if the drone Iran thinks it captured is really a balsa wood trojan horse full of more stuxnet type viruses just waiting to be plugged into someone’s computer network to call home?

    In case anyone noticed, the intelligence congress critters have been pretty quiet in response to the news about the “loss” of the drone.

  32. person1597 says:

    Looking at the link in MadDog’s comment (#38) shows Hi-def photos of the craft. It isn’t a mock-up from the details you can see… It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s SuperUnmanned!

    Plus, a positive identification did come from unnamed government sources.

    Was it an intentional gambit? I doubt it, but time will tell.

    If it were a trojan packed with C-4 (minus the taggant) then the payload would still have to be delivered and detonated. If it were a delivery vehicle for a computer virus then there would have to be a data channel to the “target system”. Maybe there’s an internet cafe near the examination site. Or not.

    If a ground controller did screw the pooch — why would the spooks confirm their own incompetence? (Call it a failure to communicate.)

    Having said that, a little humility on the part of the USA might do wonders for detente. Can’t have that during an election cycle!

    Folks aren’t foreclosing a hack as the underlying cause… But…

    There appears to have been a mission anomaly, but not in a way to cause a self-destruct or impair the autonomous mode that lands the plane.

    Oh, the irony of running out of gas over one of the largest producers of oil on the planet. Almost (but not quite) poetic.

  33. person1597 says:

    Looking again at the HD pixs, that wing root seal buckled and puckered towards the rear of the [stage] left wing. Coulda been from the ground impact… But…

    If the seal popped out at altitude it could have cold soaked some critical components — like a fuel pump or even burst a hydraulic line. If the engine quit, things would get awfully cold inside.

    A secondary effect of such a hardware malfunction could have resulted in the disabling the nav/com electronics. The antennas appear to be in that wing.

    Remember the old car radio antenna connectors? Sometimes they’d work loose in the winter or become intermittent if the car experienced kinetic impingements. Usually when a good song was playing.

    With such a complex system operating in such extreme environments it seems like you want that bird maintained in a clean room. Given that it is possible the plane was assembled and launched in the field, there’s some risk that the pre-flight could overlook assembly glitches.

    Doing a “positive control check” would be difficult under the circumstances… But…

    If you really really really want to return from an imminent flight, you’d want to make sure all the control surfaces were affirmatively coupled and that the wing root seal had full integrity.

    A discontinuity in the seal may not have been visible to the go team, but a chance bubble or void in the wing root tape could have opened up somewhere in space during the flight.

    Ergo, a “launch problem”.

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