SIGINT Spy Drone Key to Capturing Shahzad?
Could an unmanned signals intelligence aircraft have tracked the movements of the accused Times Square terrorist? And is the use of drones in the U.S. legal?
May 5, 2010 - 1:58 pm
A retired National Security Agency (NSA) source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, says signals intelligence was a key factor in catching Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad.
Working with the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force, NSA agents apparently tracked Shahzad’s movements by locating signals from his cell phone, possibly via a drone. This is ironic because in a video posted at the Long War Journal, the Taliban claims that the Times Square bombing was revenge for recent drone attacks in Pakistan.
Curiously, at 6:21 pm EST on Tuesday, WCBS-2 TV in New York reported that Army intelligence aircraft had led to the suspect’s arrest. “In the end, it was secret Army intelligence planes that did him in. Armed with his cell phone number, they circled the skies over the New York area, intercepting a call to Emirates Airlines reservations, before scrambling to catch him at John F. Kennedy International Airport,” reported Marcia Kramer.
But then the article was quickly taken down. Wired magazine’s Danger Room website speculates that “those planes were likely RC-12s, equipped with a Guardrail Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) system.” Tim Brown, a senior fellow with GlobalSecurity.org who specializes in satellite technology and imagery analysis, disagrees. “Guardrail is a tactical SIGINT package used in the sandbox [i.e. the Middle East],” Brown told me in a telephone interview from his home in Los Angeles. ”Guardrail are modified Beechcraft King Air planes generally used to pinpoint a location to call in an air strike. Guardrail is not deployed in the United States because it would violate Posse Comitatus,” Brown explained.
The Posse Comitatus Act, signed into law in 1878, limits the powers of the federal government to use the military for law enforcement purposes. And it likely explains why WCBS-2 took the article down. Brown believes that if Faisal Shahzad’s capture was owing to signals intelligence from an intercepted phone call, it could have come from a satellite relay from a drone equipped with a sophisticated SIGINT package. But flying drones over New York City “gets into a murky area,” Brown explained, one that is the subject of a growing and yet unresolved debate. “Coast Guard, DHS and local law enforcement have expressed interest in flying drones domestically for surveillance purposes,” Brown explains, but so far it appears no one “officially” does.