Google exposes US airbase in Pakistan used to launch drones
Instead of blanket-wiretapping Americans, maybe the Bush Administration's intelligence agencies should have spent a little more time with Google Earth.
Until recently, Google Earth prominently displayed an image of a clandestine US airbase that housed unmanned Predator drones in Pakistan. An image appeared to show three drones outside a hangar at the end of a runway, which was then confirmed to be an airfield by a British newspaper.
The newspaper then cited intelligence sources as saying the CIA had been using the base to attack and observe al-Qaeda and Taliban militants along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
The photograph appears to confirm a seeming slip-of-the-tongue by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee who said that the US was launching strikes on Pakistani territory from inside Pakistan ("As I understand it, these [drones] are flown out of a Pakistani base," she said). Feinstein's spokesman later asserted she was only repeating something she saw in The Washington Post, but intelligence sources used the opportunity to confirm that the US had indeed been using Pakistani bases.
American and Pakistani officials have repeatedly denied that the US has launched strikes from within Pakistan.
"The Google Earth image now suggests that the US began launching Predators from [the Shamsi airbase] -- built by Arab sheiks for falconry trips -- at least three years ago," the Times of London's Jeremy Page reported. "The advantage of Shamsi is that it provides a discreet launchpad within minutes of Quetta -- a known Taleban staging post -- as well as Taliban infiltration routes into Afghanistan and potential militant targets farther afield."
"Google Earth's current image of Shamsi -- about 100 miles south of the Afghan border and 100 miles east of the Iranian one -- undoubtedly shows the same airstrip as the image from 2006," Page added. "There are no visible drones, but it does show that several new buildings and other structures have been erected since 2006, including what appears to be a hangar large enough to fit three drones. Perimeter defenses -- apparently made from the same blast-proof barriers used at US and NATO bases in Afghanistan -- have also been set up around the hangar."
A military spokesman at the US Embassy in Islamabad and Pakistan's chief military spokesman declined or was unavailable to comment on the revelations.
Google compliant with censorship requests: reportDespite the latest Google expose, the California-based company has becoming increasingly compliant to government requests to block purportedly sensitive information -- including images of Tibet, military installations and even a General Electric research plant -- according to a report prepared by the Open Source Center for the Bush Administration's Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell and reports circulated online about areas Google has blocked or blurred.
The research report was not approved for public release but was leaked to Secrecy News. It is prepared entirely on public information -- so called "open source" intelligence. But it paints a picture of an increasingly pliant global communications juggernaut, willing to do business with authoritarian regimes and US government agencies at the expense of transparency.
China, for instance, has an "online geographical information security management and coordination group" which regularly browses online mapping sites.
"When problems are discovered, they are either raised with Google's China headquarters or through diplomatic channels," the report says.
"Google has been very cooperative in the course of communications," a Chinese spokesman remarked.
Among the areas Google blurs out in China includes, not surprisingly, Tibet/Xinjiang Province. Other areas of Asia that have been clouded include northern areas of Pakistan -- it's unknown why or who might have requested the omission.
Google also censors certain sites in India. India may also be taking measures to hide their facilities from satellites. According to the report, "India's army announced that it had taken evasive measures against the 'intrusive photographs of strategic installations.'"
Google sometimes uses older images to replace existing ones to erase, say, the movement of troops in Iraq. After a January 2007 report that terrorists were attacking British bases based on Google Earth imagery, Google replaced images of these sites with photographs taken before the war. The report also claims that al Qaeda militants used Google Earth to target oil facilities in Yemen.
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