In the middle of July 1990, American KH-11 satellites passing over the Middle East began transmitting disturbing imagery of the border between Iraq and Kuwait. The satellites' optical systems previously had seen only empty desert there, but now they showed an Iraqi division equipped with the modern T-72 tank. The next day the satellites' transmissions showed evidence of a formidable Iraqi force of 300 tanks and 10,000 men, plus a division of the Republican Guard. By the third day, the satellites' photo interpreters estimated that 35,000 Iraqi troops were poised on Kuwait's northern border.
Among those examining the imagery was Walter P. `Pat' Lang. A retired Army colonel, Lang was the Defense Intelligence Agency's officer for the Middle East and South Asia. Fluent in Arabic, he had traveled to Iraq half a dozen times and served as military attache in Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s. Lang was worried by what he was seeing, and he wasn't alone. Charles Eugene Allen, the national intelligence officer for warning, became convinced that Iraq's Saddam Hussein was preparing to attack Kuwait. On August 1 he warned the National Security Council's Middle East staff that Iraq would invade Kuwait by the end of the day.
But despite the satellite images and the warnings from Lang and Allen, the top intelligence and national security officials, including President Bush, felt that Hussein was bluffing. The satellites had made their contributions, but their human masters chose to interpret their images optimistically.
The intelligence failure before the Gulf war underscores one simple fact: spy satellites are only as effective as the people who use them, in part because they do not provide information, they provide data. It takes a human partner to glean information from that data and to act upon it, and it's the human side of the partnership that determines if the satellite is a success or a failure.
That satellites are valuable tools for intelligence gathering was demonstrated early in the Space Age. Satellite images of the Soviet Union taken in the early 1960s backed up evidence from U-2 flights that the feared missile gap was a myth that rather than having hundreds of intercontinental ballistic missiles aimed at the American heartland, the Soviets had, at most, ten.
Several years later President Lyndon Johnson told a group of educators, `I wouldn't want to be quoted on this, but we've spent 35 or 40 billion dollars on the space program. And if nothing else had come out of it except the knowledge that we've gained from space photography, it would be worth 10 times what the whole program has cost. Because tonight we know how many missiles the enemy has, and, it turned out, our guesses were way off. We were doing things we didn't need to do. We were building things we didn't need to build. We were harboring fears we didn't need to harbor.'
Despite their great value, the early reconnaissance satellites were far from perfect. They returned their images by parachuting the film back to Earth in a capsule, sometimes days or even weeks after they were taken. That delay could be crippling. Both the 1967 Six-Day War in Israel and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 ended before the United States could obtain satellite imagery of the trouble spots.
After the 1973 Yom Kippur War, one analyst with the Central Intelligence Agency recalls, `we had wonderful coverage but we didn't get the pictures until the war was over.' The lack of timely intelligence was judged by the Pike Committee (established in 1975 to investigate U.S. intelligence activities) a serious threat to the United States. The United States had been forced to rely on overly optimistic Israeli battle reports. As a result, reported the committee, `[t]he U.S. clashed with the better-informed Soviets on the latter's strong reaction to Israeli cease-fire violations. Soviet threats to intervene militarily were met with a worldwide U.S. troop alert. Poor intelligence had brought America to the brink of war.'
The quantum leap needed to overcome such intelligence gaps was made in December 1976 with the launch of a satellite known by the top-secret program name Kennan and more widely as the KH-11 (`KH' being shorthand for KEYHOLE, the designation of an imaging satellite, and `11' indicating the 11th optical system used by the KH satellite series). Unlike earlier KH satellites, KH-11s can return imagery almost instantly. They also have relatively long lives, sometimes remaining active for several years. During daylight passes in good atmospheric conditions, the satellites can obtain clear pictures in which objects only six inches apart can be distinguished (see `The Vision Thing,' page 78).
The KH-11s transmit their data to ground stations, where it is recorded on tape and shipped to imagery interpreters. Because the satellites can send back a picture about even five seconds, many of the images are simply stored. They can be scrutinized later if events require it. Others are viewed immediately and become one more piece of the larger intelligence picture. And still others become the catalyst for further collection efforts and eventually for action political, diplomatic, or military.
Even in the post-Cold War era there is no shortage of reconnaissance targets. Satellite imagery of the Soviet Union is vital for arms control verification and for monitoring the volatile situation there. Satellites search for signs of new nuclear reactors or missile deployments in countries that buy arms and nuclear technology from China, including Algeria, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. The United States' eyes in space even keep watch over sites in the Western Hemisphere, from drug production facilities in Bolivia and Columbia to possible advanced weapons in Argentina and Brazil.
Eventually all of this imagery will end up in a windowless building in the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. The National Photographic Interpretation Center is run by the CIA and staffed by interpreters from the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and various Army, Navy, and Air Force intelligence organizations. The CIA, DIA, and military intelligence organizations also maintain their own interpretation divisions. Riding herd on the `exploitation' process, as it is called, is the director of the CIA's Committee on Imagery Requirements and Exploitation, which divides the imagery interpretation task among the different agencies.
Even if presented with the best overhead imagery, a layman would glean only a fraction of the intelligence extracted by skilled interpreters. In his book `Thirteen Days,' Robert Kennedy recalled the photographs a high-flying U-2 spyplane took in 1962 of Soviet missile sites being set up in Cuba, images that sparked the Cuban Missile Crisis, `I examined the pictures carefully,' Kennedy wrote, `and what I saw appeared to be no more than the clearing of a field for a farm or the basement of a house. I was relieved to hear later that this was the same reaction of virtually everyone at the meeting, including President Kennedy.'
The people who analyze satellite pictures are trained to extract the maximum amount of information. They use interpretation keys--volumes that contain satellite-eye views of everything from submarines to aircraft. `Each weapons system has a signature,' says retired CIA photo-interpreter Dino Brugioni. `An ICBM site, for example: the signature for an ICBM site is modern roads with wide-radius turns that end up at a secured area. The reason you have to have wide-radius turns is you're dealing with a missile that's about 100 feet long and you can't come up to a crossroad and turn the thing. The other thing is that you have a multimillion-dollar missile and you're not going to trundle it over bad roads.'
Interpreters also examine the image in context, relating an object to its surroundings. Says Brugioni, `I always advocated that you take out picture books of the country that you're dealing with. A domed building in the United States is, in most probable cases, a radar dome. You can't apply that to the Middle East. In each case you work with a pattern and you begin to learn how people live and you take that and you develop a series of signatures about the particular country you're working with.'
Even the most skilled interpreters can make mistakes. Shortly after the Six-Day-War, CIA photo interpreters were alarmed by a satellite photo of Israeli territory that clearly showed a circular excavation--the kind of digging associated with installation of a missile silo--near the Gaza strip. Closer study revealed that the excavation was, in fact, a watering trough.
When satellites used film to photograph their targets, the ability to mamanipulate and enhance the imagery was limited. The film could be scanned with a laser, converted into digital form, and then manipulated, but many times the very act of developing the film destroyed valuable information. When an image was cloaked in shadows, often all that was left after the film was developed was the shadow. With the arrival of the KH-11 and its digital imagery, image enhancement with computers became an enormously valuable tool in the interpreter's arsenal.
Though the details of intelligence image enhancement are secret, similar work is done at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, JPL's image enhancement software includes nearly a thousand programs for enhancement work, according to Kevin Hussey of the image processing lab. For instance, when a target is partially obscured by cloud cover or haze, the computer can compensate by eliminating the clouds. Another technique allows computers to compare images of the same target taken at different times and immediately detect any changes, such as new construction, movements of motor vehicles, or excavation. it is also possible to improve resolution by using a computer to combine multiple images of a single scene. And a `de-spiking' program will automatically flag any pixels with values so bright or dark that they stand out from their neighbors, either replacing them with more average values, or alerting analysts of the discrepancy. Averaging two or more images of the same area also allows the computer to filter out any aberrant pixels and get a more realistic view of the target.
But even with computers, satellites alone cannot provide a full picture of what's going on below them. The KH-11 images from Iraq that had concerned Pat Lang and Charles Allen might have been more persuasive to others if they had been supplemented by two other forms of intelligence--human intelligence from old-fashioned spies and intercepted signal communications. But as former CIA director William Webster noted in late 1990, human intelligence concerning the intentions of world leaders `is often difficult to acquire and, frankly, very difficult to acquire in an autocratic environment.' And Saddam Hussein's Iraq was more autocratic than most countries, with a fearsome secret police. Further, Hussein and his subordinates were well aware that the U.S. global eavesdropping network can snatch almost any communication out of the air. To avoid being overheard, the Iraqis transmitted much of their important information via fiber optic cables and other land lines, rather than transmitting through the air.
Nations may also attempt to foil a satellite with denial and deception operations. Denial methods may be as simple as stopping an activity or placing equipment under a cover or inside a building before a satellite passes overhead. Deception operations seek to mislead the imagery interpreters. The receivers may deploy dummy aircraft and tanks, paint patterns on buildings that suggest bomb or fire damage, or camouflage military hardware. But interpreters have ways to unmask the deception. According to Dino Brugioni, `If the Soviets put up dummy aircraft, you never see them being serviced. If they put up rubber dummies and decoys you see them smashed as the weather and seasons change.'
Sometime around December 1987, a KH-11 detected a construction site 40 miles south of Tripoli, the capital of Libya. By July 1988 enough intelligence had been acquired from KH-11 and SR-71 photography, communications interceptions, and human sources (including Arab and Western workers at the site) to convince CIA analysts that Muammar Qaddafi was definitely building a chemical warfare facility.
Having been caught red-handed by the satellites, Qaddafi tried to use them to undo the damage. The buildings at the complex were painted with `burns' to support a report by the Libyan news agency that a fire had erupted at the complex, but U.S. intelligence analysts who examined the imagery were not fooled. `It clearly was an attempt at deception,' one senior intelligence official told the Washington Post, and the attempt was `not particularly well done.'
During the war with Iraq, the United States operated an unprecedented number of imaging satellites simultaneously--three KH-11s (launched in 1984, 1987, and 1988), three advanced KH-11s (launched in 1989 and 1990), and one LACROSSE (launched in 1988). In the five and a half months between the invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 and the beginning of the air war, U.S. satellites closely scrutinized Iraq for sites to target for attack.
The imagery arrived in the field either from Washington (after processing) via communications satellites or, according to Aviation Week and Space Technology, directly from reconnaissance satellites transmitting to small mobile terminals in the theater of operations. In a speech in August 1990, Air Force Brigadier General Donald Hard announced that imagery `is provided directly to the field, to allow informed and accurate decisions for mission planning and battle management.'
But the war also demonstrated the limits of satellite imagery. One difficulty was effective damage assessment. Sometimes the results of a bombing raid were clear, but at other times the damage was out of the satellites' view: munitions, particularly `smart' bombs, could simply have punched a small hole in a roof or entered via a duct and done their damage inside. In such cases intelligence analysts would not consider the target destroyed.
The limitations of imagery and the utility of other forms of intelligence were tragically illustrated on February 12, when allied aircraft bombed a reinforced-concrete building in Baghdad. Intelligence had pinpointed the structure as a command and control facility and, according to some reports, a leadership shelter. But the facility also served as a civilian shelter, possibly for relatives of the Iraqi leadership. As many as several hundred civilians were killed in the attack.
Military briefers in Washington and Riyadh confirmed that satellite imagery played a key role, though not the sole one, in identifying the facility as a command and control center. Captain David Herrington, deputy director of intelligence for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted that the U.S. had observed that the building had `a camouflage roof [and] a security fence around it with barbed wire.' Joint Chiefs of Staff director of operations Thomas Kelly recalled: `We saw military vehicles parked outside it, we saw military people going in and out of it.* * *' U.S. satellites also spotted communications equipment that had been hardened to survive a nuclear blast.
Other forms of intelligence supported the satellites' observations. Intercepted communications had indicated that the facility was being used for command and control purposes, and as Riyadh briefer Brigadier General Richard Neal noted, `We talked to folks that worked in the construction area' who described the installation of sophisticated equipment that was hardened against military attack. Unfortunately, there were no human sources to provide information on exactly how the facility was being used. If the civilians had entered the shelter in the middle of the night, it would have been difficult for satellites to detect them. The deaths of those civilians illustrated that, as Colonel Andrew Duncan of the International Institute of Strategic Studies observed, `No matter how many satellites you have overhead * * * nobody can see through a roof.'
That is unlikely to change. Instead, the challenge is to be found back on Earth: in combining different types of imagery (visible light, infrared, and radar) and in developing better methods to ensure that the flood of imagery is processed, analyzed, and distributed efficiently, particularly in critical combat situations.
It is clear from their comments that U.S. military commanders in the Persian Gulf, including General Norman Schwarzkopf, found the system for producing and distributing overhead photography to be deficient. Among Schwarzkopf's complaints was that field commanders and pilots could not get reconnaissance photographs of potential Iraqi military targets that were less than a day old. `It was a void that all of us felt,' the general said.
The delay was caused by two problems. Even with the large number of satellites in orbit, the United States was not able to image every target on a daily basis, particularly when cloud cover was present. In addition, interpreters were swamped by the volume of incoming imagery, resulting in 18-hour workdays at NPIC. But it is unlikely that this country will ever have the financial and human resources to ensure that all targets are monitored and the imagery analyzed every day.
William E. Burrows, the author of `Deep Black: Space Espionage and National Security,' observes. `It's a paradox. Real-time imaging from several spacecraft, particularly in a crisis, can return an avalanche of information. That's the good news. But the more data you collect, the more you struggle to process, interpret, and move it. The bad news is that an avalanche can bury you alive.'