US runs warzone man-tracking 'Manhattan Project'
Mystery snoop-tech used in wave of assassinations
A long-running background mutter has now become a loud buzz of speculation, following cryptic comments by a famous US journalist regarding a top secret new surveillance-tech "Manhattan Project" targeting terrorist and insurgent leaders in Iraq.
Bob Woodward of the Washington Post - famous for his reporting of leaks by a senior FBI official regarding the Watergate scandals of the 1970s - makes the claims in a new book, which he is currently engaged in trailing. He says that the current reduction in violence being seen in Iraq is partly, as everyone assumes, a result of visible factors - the Sunni "awakening" against al-Qaeda in Iraq, the ceasefire by important Shi'ite militias, and the US troop "surge" in which many more American soldiers have been operating on the ground outside their secure bases.
But Woodward says there has also been an unseen special-ops surveillance and assassination campaign against terrorist and insurgent leaders, large numbers of whom have been eliminated in the past year - a campaign heavily reliant on mysterious, top-secret new intelligence technology of some kind.
"It is a wonderful example of American ingenuity solving a problem in war, as we often have," said Woodward in a recent TV interview.
"I would somewhat compare it to the Manhattan Project in World War II."
Woodward refuses to reveal exactly what the new wonder-tech is, that has let US and allied forces track down (and then, typically, kill) so many insurgent/terrorist commanders lately. Most analysts on the death-tech beat have thus offered suggestions of their own. There are some, whose access to classified programs is perhaps even better than Woodward's but who must cooperate even more closely with their sources, who say that in fact there is nothing new under the sun - just old tricks being tied together more effectively.
Many others are leading with our old friend the Predator/Reaper unmanned aircraft, whose abilities as an eye in the sky are well known. It's certain that a lot of the actual killings have been done by Predators, usually using laser-guided Hellfire missiles. Often the aerial death machines are guided in by their victims' cell or satellite phone signatures - the phones perhaps having been meddled with in cunning ways by spooks and/or special-ops electronic warfare (EW) "knob-turners". Generally the EW capabilities have been installed in separate aircraft rather than aboard the actual Predator weapons/camera/radar drone itself, though this is set to change.
But in fact the Predator - in the end, it's just an aircraft - isn't a game-changing piece of kit. Nor is the ability to track or even remotely activate phone handsets: there are credible reports - for instance in this book, by respected UK defence hack and former British Army intelligence-corps operator Mick Smith - that quite amazing mobe trickery was in use by US spec-ops elements as long ago as the 1980s. It's now common advice even among biz security types to remove mobile phone batteries during sensitive meetings, and serious criminals or terrorists would nowadays completely discard any phone that might have come to the notice of the authorities.
Credible rumours suggest that the capabilities Woodward alludes to may allow individual people (rather than items of equipment) to be tracked from afar; even inside buildings, even if the most draconian mobile-handset security protocols have been followed.
Wired magazine speculates that what's going on here may be an effort known to the US defence department as Continuous Clandestine Tagging, Tracking, and Locating (CTTL). Under CTTL, a variety of different techniques might be used to follow a specific person from long distances. A person might have a tiny RFID-esque device or transponder implanted in their body without their knowledge - perhaps while being held prisoner by Coalition forces. The teeny gizmo might need no battery, conceivably harvesting its power needs from body heat or ambient radio transmissions - or it might work more in the way that the radar-cavity tags in skiing jackets do, reflecting a radar pulse in a distinctive way.
Alternatively, according to a powerpoint presentation unearthed by Wired, it may be possible to distinguish a unique thermal signature for each person, as distinctive as a fingerprint or DNA signature but visible to an airborne sensor from afar.
However they work, the use of such techniques was actually quite well-known already. In early 2007, for instance, five Taliban prisoners were released by the Afghan government in exchange for an Italian journalist who was being held hostage. The move was seen at the time as a humiliating setback for the Coalition forces, but in fact it was a targeted intelligence operation. One of the released prisoners was Mullah Shah Mansoor, the brother of top Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah.
Mansoor was tracked by a US spec-ops formation referred to as "Task Force Orange" - possibly a current operating name for the organisation variously known as the US Army Intelligence Support Activity, the "Army of Northern Virginia" etc etc. The Activity has long had a policy of changing its name every so often, and has operated in the past under such names as "Grey Fox", "Centra Spike", "Torn Victor" etc. The organisation focuses on intelligence - on finding and monitoring enemies - rather than carrying out direct action killings itself. Such jobs are usually handed on to US "tier one" spec-ops teams from Delta Force or DevGru (what was once SEAL Team Six), or trusted allies like the British special forces.
Having remotely tracked the released Mansoor to a Taliban base across the border at Quetta in Pakistan, the US knob-turners then reportedly became interested in a particular satellite phone - the one belonging to Mullah Dadullah himself. Dadullah apparently thought this phone to be clean, but it seems that merely carrying it to a meeting with his newly freed brother was enough to flag it up. As soon as Dadullah went back across the border into Afghanistan, he could be attacked - and was. A squadron of Britain's Special Boat Service (SBS) special forces, accompanied by Afghan troops, assaulted Dadullah's compound at Bahram Chah in the south of Helmand province during May 2007. Dadullah was shot dead - receiving two bullets to the body (a classic special forces "double-tap") and one to the head, hinting perhaps that nobody was especially interested in taking prisoners.
Mick Smith, telling the story for the Times (the gaff was originally blown by the Afghan government, apparently) merely said that TF-Orange had used "sophisticated signals technology to monitor Mansoor’s movements".
However, the website specialboatservice.co.uk - which has connections with a former SBS covert operator, mercenary and novelist who writes under the name Duncan Falconer - says:
It is speculated that the [released] Taliban had somehow been tagged with trackers, perhaps in their bodies.
This tends to suggest the more-feasible sounding miniature implant theory on the new kit, rather than unique body heat-signatures or whatever - which in any case would seem unlikely to work through walls. Teeny-tiny tracker technology has certainly been in use for some time by British secret forces, though usually placed inside cached weapons and suchlike (the slang term in Northern Ireland for this was "jarking" - with the weapons usually being sabotaged as well). Of course, it may be that the men's clothes or other personal items were bugged rather than they themselves.
Just people-tracking might seem a little basic to be referred to as a "Manhattan Project", unless it had some other special sauce as well. It's surely also true that there have been new developments in mobile phone trickery, airborne surveillance and - probably even more importantly - in bringing together information from many different sources in a timely fashion. But following individuals remotely, en masse, relatively inexpensively and without needing to put large teams of followers on the ground - that might be a real game changer.
It might also be something to worry about in a civil-liberties context, if it really does operate as described.
However the new stuff works, it would seem that terrorists or other malcontents on the run from sinister US government agencies in future may soon need to don their trusty tinfoil hats, garments etc. not so much to keep out federal/alien mindcontrol rays as to keep in the transmissions from possible implanted bugs.
A case of enemies within the enemy within, as it were. Or it might just be a lot of hype. ®