SIGINT Spy Drone Key to Capturing Shahzad?

Which doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. Last fall, I visited Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nevada. That is the location from where Air Force pilots fly Predator and Reaper drones over Afghanistan and Iraq. During an unclassified briefing there I learned how drone pilots were having trouble following terror suspects in heavy traffic situations in downtown Baghdad. The problem was solved by having drone pilots practice on cars driving in congested traffic situations outside Las Vegas, which is located 55 miles south of Creech Air Force Base.

“Is the public ready to have drones flying around overhead?” Tim Brown asked me. “Because that’s what it comes down to.” The issue of monitoring U.S. citizens and U.S. persons is the focus of the debate.

If Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad was indeed captured owing to an aerial spy platform circling over New York, the case for law enforcement’s use of drones may have gotten a boost as far as Joe Citizen is concerned. The adage, “if you see something say something,” is what inspired a New York City vendor to notify the police about the Times Square car bomb. In spycraft, that is what is known as HUMINT, or human intelligence. Coupled with SIGINT, or signals intelligence, the terrorist was caught.

Sadly predicable, the loser tradecraft in this scenario was bureaucracy. Once again, the TSA failed to do its job. The Associated Press reports that “the no-fly list failed to keep the Times Square suspect off the plane” bound for Dubai. This is despite the fact that the suspect’s name had been placed on the TSA’s no-fly list earlier that same day: “He reserved a ticket on the way to John F. Kennedy International Airport, paid cash on arrival and walked through [airport] security without being stopped.” It was Customs and Border Protection agents who apparently spotted Shahzad's name on the Emirates airline passenger list and recognized him to be the bombing suspect that every law enforcement officer in New York City was looking for.

The story is updating quickly. Whether the public will learn about the possible key role of surveillance drones in the manhunt remains to be seen.