What WAS Our Sentinel Drone Surveilling in Iran?

Kevin Drum captures where the state of the reporting on the story that the MEK, backed by Israel, is responsible for the assassinations of Iranian scientists and the implication that that makes Israel a state that sponsors terrorism. Drum writes,

Are the attacks on Iran terrorism? Of course they are. If they’re not, we might as well give up on even trying to define the word. But is it acceptable just because the other side is using it? Of course it’s —

But wait a second. Is it? For all practical purposes, Iran and Israel are at war; they’ve been at war for a long time; and both sides have tacitly agreed that it will primarily be a war carried out nonconventionally. The alternative is what we did in Afghanistan and Iraq: a full-scale conventional attack.

Is that a superior alternative? To say the least, I’m a little hard pressed to say it is. But the alternative is not to fight back at all. Given the current state of the art in human nature, that’s really not in the cards.

Still: is it terrorism? Yes. Do both sides use it? Yes. Is this, in many cases, the future of warfare? Probably yes.

The only question I’d raise is a chicken and an egg thing. Who attacked whom first? And if Hezbollah is your proxy to say that Iran did, then what was the 2006 invasion of Lebanon about?

Speaking of chickens and eggs, though, there’s something left out of this formulation. The US.

As I noted back in December, the reporting of David Sanger (whose beat seems to be precisely the intersection of US and Israeli covert ops) seems to suggest that our drones have been surveilling now-dead Iranian scientists.

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.

So, sure, Israel assassinated Iranian civilians by partnering with a terrorist group. But what if they did it using intelligence gathered with our drones? Does that make us a state sponsor of terrorism, too? Besides, DNI James Clapper seemed to suggest the other day the CIA may use assassinations in some limited non-counterterrorism situations (ironically, allowing the CIA to use terrorism when not fighting terrorists).

All this discussion of Israel as a state sponsoring terrorism is interesting. But it’s probably not just Israel we should be examining.

14 replies
  1. b2020 says:

    “For all practical purposes, Iran and Israel are at war; they’ve been at war for a long time; and both sides have tacitly agreed that it will primarily be a war carried out nonconventionally.”

    Phooey. Do I have to read drivel like this? Oh wait – don’t answer that.

    Well, it might not be the drones undermining the Treaty of Westphalia, but the Drums are another issue entirely.

  2. Bob Schacht says:

    @b2020: Its not drivel. It is becoming the defining feature of 21st century foreign policy, aka intelligence ops and “defense”, which used to have a sensible definition.

    “Does that make us a state sponsor of terrorism, too?”
    Hahahahahahahaha. Of course we are. By any sensible and objective definition of terrorism, we support terrorism, only we conjure up different names for terrorists, like “Freedom fighters” or other euphemisms dependent on knowing whether the activity in question involves them against us, or us against them.

    Bob in AZ

  3. Kathleen says:

    “All this discussion of Israel as a state sponsoring terrorism is interesting. But it’s probably not just Israel we should be examining.”

    And Glenn Greenwald is:
    Friday, Feb 10, 2012 8:59 AM Eastern Standard Time
    Israel, MEK and state sponsor of Terror groups
    “One of the most under-reported political stories of the last year is the devoted advocacy of numerous prominent American political figures on behalf of an Iranian group long formally designated as a Terrorist organization under U.S. law. A large bipartisan cast has received substantial fees from that group, the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), and has then become their passionate defenders. The group of MEK shills includes former top Bush officials and other Republicans (Michael Mukasey, Fran Townsend, Andy Card, Tom Ridge, Rudy Giuliani) as well as prominent Democrats (Howard Dean, Ed Rendell, Bill Richardson, Wesley Clark). As The Christian Science Monitor reported last August, those individuals “have been paid tens of thousands of dollars to speak in support of the MEK.” No matter what one thinks of this group – here is a summary of its activities – it is formally designated as a Terrorist group and it is thus a felony under U.S. law to provide it with any “material support.”

    No need to wonder why so many of our congress folks,Dean and others were pushing several months to get MEK off of the US terrorist list. Wonder why Greenwald refers to MEK as being “formally designated” as a terrorist group?

  4. PeasantParty says:


    I cannot tell you in words how much I appreciate your work. I have been reading all day and stayed up late last night to read and still did not manage to catch the things that you do.

    How can we thank you and Jim for keeping us abreast of our foreign interventions?

    To answer your questions? Yes, the US is a terrorist and Isreal is one of the worst at this moment in time. The complete disconnect with Syria is a huge tell for the US and I believe that our CIAda is part of the push to the war within Syria because that is such an integral part of Iranian support. China and Russia are not pleased with the US on this either.

  5. Kathleen says:

    Israel and Proxy Terrorism
    By Robert Wright

    Feb 13 2012, 8:43 AM ET 83

    Should Israel be classified as a state sponsor of terrorism? That question is being debated in the wake of a story that NBC News broke late last week.

    Citing unnamed US officials, NBC reported that Israel has used an Iranian opposition group to carry out those much-publicized assassinations of Iranian scientists. The group in question is the M.E.K. (Mojahedin-e Khalq, or People’s Mujahedin of Iran), which since 1997 has been designated a terrorist group by the United States because of its alleged assassinations of US citizens.

    The argument for considering Israel a supporter of terrorism comes in two varieties:

    1) According to NBC, Israel gives the M.E.K. the funding, training, and weapons to carry out the assassinations–and that would seem to constitute support for a terrorist group.

    2) Leaving aside the M.E.K. involvement, there’s the argument that the assassinations inherently constitute terrorism. Andrew Sullivan and Kevin Drum had previously suggested that whoever is behind the assassinations is committing terrorism, but this NBC story is the first mainstream media corroboration of the widespread suspicion that Israel is behind them.

    After the NBC story broke, Paul Pillar, a former CIA official who teaches at Georgetown, dusted off the definition of terrorism used by the US government for purposes of keeping statistics: “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.” That, says Pillar, is what these assassinations are.

  6. MadDog says:

    I’m still reluctant to buy into the story of US RQ-170 drones flying over the sovereign territory of both Pakistan for the OBL operation and over Iran during daylight hours. The issues regarding unpredictable contrails from a jet-engined aircraft, the visibility to naked eye at altitude, and the jet engine noise still make me skeptical.

    Night time, yes. Daylight, dubious.

  7. Kathleen says:

    Glenn Greenwald has a great one up

    U.S. media takes the lead on Iran
    “I used to find somewhat baffling this bizarre aspect of American public opinion: time and again, Americans support whatever new war of aggression their government proposes, then come to regret that support and decide the war was a “mistake,” only to demonstrate that they learned no lessons from their “mistake” by eagerly supporting whatever the next proposed war is. Thus did the widespread belief that Vietnam was a “mistake” have no impact on their support for the attack on Iraq, and now — with some polls showing Americans, before their government even proposes it, preliminarily willing to cheer on an attack on Iran — it is clear they have learned nothing from their acknowledged “mistake” in supporting the attack on Iraq. Most Americans continue with this strange mindset: we realize we were wrong to support those past wars you gave us, but we stand ready and eager to support this next one!”

    Call your Reps…No war on Iran…

  8. Kathleen says:

    @Bob Schacht:

    Well how about the US is willing to negotiate with Iran and not go along with Israel’s agenda. They can leave Aunt Jennie alone and cultivate some confidence in the American people and around the world that we are not all in love with killing innocent people based. On Valentines day the message could be Love your neighbor don’t kill them.

  9. Susan says:

    The US government is the world leader in terrorism.

    Remember when they had an 800 number to call to report suspected terrorists or terrorists acts? I called the first day and report Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld.

Comments are closed.