SIGINT Spy Drone Key to Capturing Shahzad?

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 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.

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.