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Monday, 15 October, 2001, 17:45 GMT 18:45 UK
Analysis: Piecing together the intelligence jigsaw
KC-135 Rivet Joint
Specialist aircraft will be watching and listening
By BBC News Online's Gary Eason

If Osama Bin Laden is at the hub of a multinational network of terror, even a complex and loosely configured one, some pointers to his whereabouts might be expected to surface.

Intelligence agencies routinely monitor every form of electronic communication - telephone or data traffic and radio transmissions - on the ground, in micro-wave links or by satellite.

Menwith Hill
Listening stations monitor a vast amount of communication
The US National Security Agency (NSA) does it - sub-contracting much of the work to commercial organisations.

Computers such as those in the Echelon international eavesdropping network run by the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand use "dictionaries" to analyse the data, seeking out key words or names.

'Not universal'

But this mammoth monitoring task has been made even more difficult in recent years by the explosion in data traffic with the growth of the internet and the increased use of fibre-optic cables, which are not so easy to tap into - although it is done.

The NSA's director, Air Force general Michael Hayden, said last year: "The telecommunications industry is making a $1 trillion investment to encircle the world in millions of miles of high bandwidth fibre-optic cable. They are aggressively investing in the future.

"As private enterprise transitioned from the Industrial Age to the Information Age, so must government. So far, the National Security Agency is lagging behind."


A European Parliament inquiry into the existence of Echelon, which reported in July, concluded that the states involved "... have access to only a very limited proportion of cable and radio communications, and, owing to the large numbers of personnel required, can analyse only an even smaller proportion of those communications."

James Bamford, a writer on intelligence matters, said the NSA may well have picked up evidence about Bin Laden's plans, but did not have enough analysts who understood the culture of fundamentalism, and failed to spot the clues.

The US defence department's annual report to Congress this year said it needed to "revitalize and reshape the intelligence workforce".

"The department faces personnel shortfalls in linguists, all-source analysts, human intelligence collectors, and cyber specialists," said Defence Secretary William Cohen.

In any case Bin Laden is said to be very wary of any forms of electronic communication.

Whether this is due to a concern about eavesdropping by foreign intelligence agencies, or fears that such devices might contain a bomb, the practical effect would be the same - he would not show up.

On the ground

Reports based on actual sightings are the information which is most needed.

America is getting the assistance of its traditional allies' intelligence operations in tracking Bin Laden and his associates. There have been arrests or arrest warrants in England, France and Germany.

Spy satellite image of a support camp in Afghanistan
Pentagon-issued spy satellite image of a camp in Afghanistan, 1998
Next door to Afghanistan, Uzbekistan has information on its own Islamic insurgents. Tajikistan is regarded by Russia as its front line against terrorism.

Russia has considerable expertise of Islamic militant groups in the region and mujahedin tactics in Afghanistan.

But in terms of getting up-to-date information on the situation in Afghanistan, the US probably most needs the help of Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.

The ISI has supported the Taleban from its beginnings and is said to maintain agents within Afghanistan.

The ISI also has links with the American CIA, dating back to joint efforts to thwart the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Satellite reconnaissance

Watching Afghanistan will be image-gathering spy satellites. Military analysts say the most capable of these, which are American, have a resolution of about 10 cms (4 ins).

10cm resolution image
The sort of detail visible at 10cm resolution [Federation of American Scientists]
That means they can photograph objects the size of a car clearly enough for someone to be able to describe them. You could see a person but not identify him.

On 5 October a military Titan rocket was launched in California, believed to be carrying the latest US spy satellite. Another was launched on 11 October.

The cargoes were commissioned by the US defence department's National Reconnaissance Office.

But satellites take only still pictures as they pass over a target area in their orbit around the Earth - and the images are not immediate.

The United States also has a variety of specialist aircraft which are in the region or can reach it.

Aerial surveillance

The old U-2 spy plane is still in use to give day or night, all-weather, high-altitude surveillance. It has a variety of sensors including cameras and imaging radars.

Spy plane radar image
Spy plane radar image of Australia's defence HQ from a range of 42 miles*
A derivative of the Boeing 707, the RC-135V/W Rivet Joint surveillance aircraft was dubbed "the Ears of the Storm" during the Gulf War.

It has a range of equipment on board through which its 30 or so operators can locate and sift through radio transmissions to pick out those that might be of military interest.

Another airliner-size aircraft, JStars, provides continuous surveillance of surface activity over a wide area and can build up detailed images of objects on the ground, even through cloud, using a form of radar.


A US Army Intelligence School document explains how information from a JStars might be used by a ground station miles away to target a moving convoy.

On a computer screen, the operator puts a cross-hair cursor on the lead vehicle. If he picks it again a little later the system will tell him the speed and distance the column has travelled.

He moves the cursor to a road junction and asks the system to predict when the convoy will get there.

He can then call up artillery to fire at the junction at that time - or as the document puts it: "The operator has the ability to contact arty assets and have 'steel' falling on that location when the column arrives."

Robot spy planes

But in the end, to pinpoint and get at Bin Laden, intelligence on his whereabouts has to be gathered, processed and passed on to an attacking force - quickly.

A thesis presented to the School of Advanced Airpower Studies considered the use of small, pilotless aircraft known as UAVs to tackle "the most prevalent capability deficiency in the special operations community" - a lack of timely intelligence.

The CIA is said to have pioneered these at a time when the US defence department was still evaluating them, though their use has since become widespread.

Pakistani newspaper photo of downed US robot plane
Pakistani newspaper photo of downed US robot plane in Afghanistan
Sources say the UAV downed over Afghanistan recently was one of these CIA variants - a Gnat-XP.

Any UAV is only as good as the sensors it carries. They can be equipped with an infra-red imaging device which can provide moving pictures even in the dark.

To give detailed pictures they need to fly low. And that is the drawback: They are relatively slow - and their presence is something of a giveaway to enemy troops.

The best of the bunch - a joint US-Australian project known as the Global Hawk - proved its ability to go for up to 36 hours non-stop by flying from California to Australia in April, taking optical, infra-red and radar images along the way.

It is intended for high-altitude use to monitor a large area. Formally, it is not yet operational with the US Air Force. Defence experts say it could be pressed into service if necessary.


But American military researchers have pointed to other problems.

One analysis of the Gulf War experience said there were 33 image-gathering systems, 14 of which could not share information, 18 different signals intelligence systems, and more besides.

"Exploitation throughput" - getting the information that had been gathered out to those who needed it - became a big problem.

With systems typically made by different manufacturers using their own dedicated links, communication difficulties remained even in the late 90s, the report said.

A multi-national effort only makes matters worse.

In his 2001 report to Congress, the US defence secretary said: "Lessons from Kosovo indicate that the inability to share information in a secure, interoperable mode can have adverse mission consequences."

All military operations - including any attempt to capture Bin Laden - depend on being able to get and share intelligence quickly enough to act on it before it goes out of date.

For special forces operations, often arranged at very short notice, speed and timing are particularly critical.

*Photo: Australian Defence Science and Technology Organisation. Copyright Commonwealth of Australia reproduced by permission.

See also:

18 Sep 01 | Sci/Tech
Spy satellites retasked
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