US drone based in Saudia Arabia revealed?

003Wired’s Danger Room blog has published pictures of what may be the hitherto secret CIA drone base in Saudi Arabia, revealed as part the confirmation hearings for John Brenner as proposed Director of the CIA…

North American military drone policy update

The USA has established organized Pacific and Atlantic surveillance UAV squadrons (of 12-24 aircraft each) for the first time, for border and sea lane monitoring. These are a variant of the Northrop-Grumman MQ-4 drones I mentioned the other day, which Japan are also buying. The order establishing the program can be found via Cryptome here. Cryptome has also published the locations of the bases from which they will fly, Ventura Country naval base in California and and Mayport naval base near Jacksonville in Florida.

It is increasingly seeming like UAVs will continue to form the core of Obama’s military strategy, and it seems no coincidence that he has nominated John Brennan, described as the ‘architect’ of his drone policy, to be the new head of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Meanwhile, Canada is more likely to have widespread use of drones by police and the private sector before it gets any military models. It was reported just at the end of last year that the Canadian military drone program is now not likely to be in operation until 2017 and the cost has gone up to over $1Bn (Can). This doesn’t seem to have attracted anything like the attention that has been given to the ingoing farago surrounding the Canadian government’s attempt to purchase US Lockheed F-35 fighter jets, although admittedly that is no estimated as being something in the region of 50 times as expensive…

(Thanks to Chris Prince for keeping me updated on this!)


War on Terror corrupts US justice

On January 1st this year, US President Obama signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that, amongst other many other provisions, allows for the US military to indefinitely detain without trial anyone suspected of terrorists acts inside the United States and, the same for anyone captured in battle wherever it is in the world. Even the UK’s provisions, which were widely criticised, were nothing like this, indeed the argument was not about indefinite detention at all, but simply over how many days someone suspected of terrorism should be allowed to be detained without trial: 14 or 28. That’s some way short of indefinite.

Of course, the infinitely compromising and slippery Obama is trying to have his cake and eat by promising that he will not actually allow this power to be used except in strict accordance with the constitution. That may provide some temporary relief for US citizens accused of terrorism, at least and until a more gung-ho President is elected or Obama gives in to demands that he must use it – something military sources are looking forward to, it seems. However the provisions on the treatment of foreign captives effectively provide a legal footing in domestic law for the extrajudicial actions of former President Bush’s establishment of Guantanemo Bay and the associated global network of extraordinary rendition and torture / interogation sites. They undoubtedly contravene the Geneva Conventions (see 75 UNTS 135, for example)and several other aspects of International Law, notably the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

But, this is far from the only current assault on the rights of those who remain innocent in law of any criminal act in the USA. In New York, for example, the New York Police Department in conjunction with the CIA was last year revealed as operating a secret surveillance program against Muslims, titled ‘Ancestries of Interest’. It is unlikely to be the only such program. Like Obama’s indefinite detention provision, this is a perversion of the constitutional rights of US citizens. US police forces from the FBI downwards are not generally permitted to use undercover agents without there being some kind of specific allegation or exisiting evidence of crime. Essentially, this makes a whole community subject to categorical suspicion and permanent infiltration and investigation. It seems that every level of policing and justice in the USA from investigation to trial to sentencing has been indelibly stained by the War on Terror.

But this has all happened several times before of course, and happily not everyone has forgotten their history. Now black Christian pastors who remember the FBI/NSA COINTELPRO operations of the 1960s against black radical and civil rights groups,  are reportedly joining with Islamic groups in opposing the NYPD’s racist and islamophobic surveillance program. Along with the challenges being mounted to Obama’s new law by ACLU and others, there are signs that Obama is no longer being given the benefit of the doubt by many of the groups who supported him first time around. How successful any of these moves will be is anyone’s guess but solidarity that moves beyond American Islamic groups having to defend themselves against the howling mob is something of a step forward.

Does the expansion of surveillance make assassination harder? Not in a world of UAVs…

Following the killing of Mahmood Al-Mabhouh is Dubai, allegedly by Israeli Mossad agents, some people are starting to ask whether political assassination is being made more difficult by the proliferation of everyday surveillance. The Washington Post argues that it is, and they give three other cases, including that of Alexandr Litvinenko in London in 2006. But there’s a number of reasons to think that this is a superficial argument.

However the obvious thing about all of these is that they were successful assassinations. They were not prevented by any surveillance technologies. In the Dubai case, the much-trumpeted new international passport regime did not uncover a relatively simple set  of photo-swaps – and anyone who has talked to airport security will know how slapdash most ID checks really are. Litvinenko is as dead as Georgi Markov, famously killed by the Bulgarian secret service with a poisoned-tipped umbrella in London in 1978, and we still don’t really have a clear idea of what was actually going on in the Markov case despite some high-profile charges being laid.

Another thing is that there are several kinds of assassination: the first are those that are meant to be clearly noticed, so as to send a message to the followers or group associated with the deceased. Surveillance technologies, and particularly CCTV,  help such causes by providing readily viewable pictures that contribute to a media PR-campaign that is as important as the killing itself. Mossad in this case, if it was Mossad, were hiding in plain sight – they weren’t really trying to do this in total secrecy. And, let’s not forget many of the operatives who carry out these kinds of actions are considered disposable and replaceable.

The second kind are those where the killers simply don’t care one way or the other what anyone else knows or thinks (as in most of the missile attacks by Israel on the compounds of Hamas leaders within Gaza or the 2002 killing of Qaed Senyan al-Harthi by a remote-controlled USAF drone in the Yemen). The third kind are those that are not meant to be seen as a killing, but are disguised as accidents – in most of those cases, we will never know: conspiracy theories swirl around many such suspicious events, and this fog of unknowing only helps further disguise those probably quite small number of truly fake accidents and discredits their investigation. One could argue that such secret killings may be affected by widespread surveillance, but those involved in such cases are far more careful and more likely to use methods to leverage or get around conventional surveillance techniques.

Then of course, there is the fact that the techniques of assassination are becoming more high-tech and powerful too. The use of remote-control drones as in the al-Harthi case is now commonplace for the US military in Afghanistan and Pakistan, indeed the CIA chief, Leon Panetta, last year described UAVs as “the only game in town for stopping Al-Qaeda.” And now there are many more nations equipping themselves with UAVs – which, of course, can be both surveillance devices and weapons platforms. Just the other day, Israel announced the world’s largest drone – the Eltan from Heron Industries, which can apparently fly for 20 hours non-stop. India has already agreed to buy drones from the same company. And, even local police forces in many cities are now investing in micro-UAVs (MAVs): there’s plenty of potential for such devices to be weaponized – and modelled after (or disguised as) birds or animals too.

Finally, assassinations were not that common anyway, so it’s hard to see any statistically significant downward trends. If anything, if one considers many of the uses of drones and precision-targeted missile strikes on the leaders of terrorist and rebel groups as ‘assassinations’, then they may be increasing in number rather than declining, albeit more confined to those with wealth and resources…

(Thanks to Aaron Martin for pointing me to The Washington Post article)

Where Will the Big Red Balloons Be Next?

The US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has launched a $40,000 competition ostensibly to see examine the way communication works in Web2.0. The competition will see whether disributed teams working together online can uncover the location of large red weather balloons moored across the USA.

The ‘DARPA Network Challenge’ “will explore the roles the Internet and social networking play in the timely communication, wide-area team-building, and urgent mobilization required to solve broad-scope, time-critical problems”.

All the headlines for this story have been verging on the amused (even The Guardian). Words like ‘whimsical’ and ‘wacky’ have been common. But it seems to me that this project has many underlying aims apart from those outlined in these superficial write-ups, not least of which are: how easily people in a culture of immediate gratification can be mobilised to state aims and in particular to do mundane intelligence and surveillance tasks (following the failure of simple old style rewards to work in the tracking down of Osama Bin Laden and other such problems), and 2, the prospects for manipulating ‘open-source intelligence’ in a more convenient manner, i.e. distributing military work and leveraging (a word the military loves) a new set of assets  – the online public, which is paradoxially characterised by both an often extreme scepticism and paranoia, but at the same time, a general superficiality and biddability.

DARPA, of course, was one of the originators of the Internet in the first place (as it continues to remind us), but the increasingly ‘open’ nature of emergent online cultures has meant that the US military now has a chronic anxiety about the security threats posed not so much by overt enemies as by the general loss of control – in fact, there’s been talk for a while of an ‘open-source insurgency’, a strategic notion that in one discursive twist elides terrorism and the open-source / open-access movement, and the CIA has recently bought into firms that specialize in Web 2.0 monitoring.

It seems rather reminiscent of both the post-WW2 remobilisation of US citizens in things like the 1950s ‘Skywatch’ programs (which Matt Farish from the University of Toronto has been studying) or more specifically, some of the brilliant novels of manipulation that emerged from that same climate, in particular Phillip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint, in which unwitting dupe, Raggle Gumm, plots missile strikes for an oppressive government whilst thinking he’s winning a newspaper competition, ‘Where will the Little Green Man be Next?’

So, who’s going to be playing ‘Where Will the Big Red Balloons Be Next?’ then… ?

DARPA's Big Red Balloons (DARPA website)