Satellite watcher warns NATO about spy plane image access

Sunday, June 16, 2002

The Associated Press

LONDON -- A satellite enthusiast is saying he had tried to warn NATO that surveillance pictures it took from spy planes over the Balkans could be watched by anyone with basic equipment.

However, the Pentagon denied that the video imagery had been used in ways that would be harmful to the United States or NATO.

John Locker, the satellite enthusiast, said he stumbled across the images, which were beamed over an insecure satellite link and were not encrypted, while watching television in November. The set was hooked up to a satellite dish.

"I wasn't tapping into anything. The pictures were freely available and anyone could see them," Locker told British Broadcasting Corp. television.

"They were from a commercial satellite, sending pictures just as any commercial satellite would. In fact it was easier to see these pictures than pay-per-view films or even Saturday sports," said Locker, who's from the Liverpool area.

The Pentagon said the images were not classified and, therefore, were not considered intelligence information.

"The U.S. military moves unclassified video via commercial satellites on contract. The military does not send or transmit classified information or data by unsecure means," said Pentagon spokeswoman Cheryl Irwin.

"Raw video is information. Information does not equal intelligence. There is no evidence this video imagery has been used in any way that is harmful to the United States and NATO."

Irwin said only people with high-end satellite dishes can receive the video.

Classified video is sent over the miltiary's secure communications network, she said.

A defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the video moved through the commercial satellites comes from number of sources, including unmanned reconaissance drones.

A European intelligence analyst also questioned whether operations had been compromised.

"It seems ... that the material that was available was not particularly sensitive, and it is difficult to say that it would be useful to anyone in Bosnia or the Balkans," said Kenneth Payne, head of European Security Program at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

Locker said he had been trying to alert U.S. authorities, including NATO, about the signal for seven months.

"They eventually told me it was a hardware constraint, they were aware of it and they thanked me for my concern," he said.

Locker said some of the data provided images as close as two yards from the subject and identified vehicles.

"Obviously I'm not a military analyst and I'm not an expert in this field but I am just amazed this type of material is going out free-to-air," he said.

Payne said the Department of Defense had a limited number of secure satellite channels available. When military operations began in Afghanistan, the Balkan traffic was bumped down to the open channels, he said.

Richard Perle, chairman of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board, told the BBC Newsnight program that there were plans to encrypt the data.

"We have discovered in the period since September 11 how important this sort of real-time intelligence is. Now we are making much better use of this kind of information and it will make sense to encrypt it in the future," he said.

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