Sunday, February 13, 2005

U.S. Uses Drones to Probe Iran For Arms

The Washington Post:
The Bush administration has been flying surveillance drones over Iran for nearly a year to seek evidence of nuclear weapons programs and detect weaknesses in air defenses, according to three U.S. officials with detailed knowledge of the secret effort.

The small, pilotless planes, penetrating Iranian airspace from U.S. military facilities in Iraq, use radar, video, still photography and air filters designed to pick up traces of nuclear activity to gather information that is not accessible by satellites, the officials said. The aerial espionage is standard in military preparations for an eventual air attack and is also employed as a tool for intimidation. ...

U.S. officials confirmed that the drones were deployed along Iran's northern and western borders, first in April 2004, and again in December and January. A former U.S. official with direct knowledge of earlier phases of the operation said the U.S. intelligence community began using Iraq as a base to spy on Iran shortly after taking Baghdad in early April 2003. Drones have been flown over Iran since then, the former official said, but the missions became more frequent last year.

The spring 2004 flyovers led Iran's military to step up its defenses around nuclear facilities in the southern cities of Isfahan and Bushehr, where locals first reported the UFO sighting. Defenses were added around those sites and others last month, Iranian officials said, after it became clear they were being observed by the drones.

A Dec. 25 article in the Etemaad newspaper, translated from Farsi by the CIA, reported on "the presence of unidentified flying objects in the Bushehr sky on a number of occasions, particularly in recent weeks." After Moscow experts were called in, the Russian daily Pravda reported on "UFO mania" sweeping Iran.

One U.S. intelligence official said different types of drones with varying capabilities have been deployed over Iran. Some fly several hundred feet above the earth, getting a closer view of ground activities than satellites, and are equipped with air filter technology that captures particles and delivers them back to base for analysis. Any presence of plutonium, uranium or tritium could indicate nuclear work in the area where the samples were collected. ...

"It was clear to our air force that the entire intention here was to get us to turn on our radar," the official said.

That tactic, designed to contribute information to what the military calls an "enemy order of battle," was used by the U.S. military in the Korean and Vietnam wars, against the Soviets and the Chinese, and in both Iraq wars.

"By coaxing the Iranians to turn on their radar, we can learn all about their defense systems, including the frequencies they are operating on, the range of their radar and, of course, where their weaknesses lie," said Thomas Keaney, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and executive director of the Foreign Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

But it did not work. "The United States must have forgotten that they trained half our guys," the Iranian official said. After a briefing by their air force three weeks ago, Iran's national security officials ordered their forces not to turn on the radar or come into contact with the drones in any way.

"Our decision was: Don't engage," the Iranian official said. Leaving the radar off deprives U.S. forces of vital information about the country's air defense system, but it also makes it harder for Iran to tell if an attack is underway. ...