Drone crash unmasks U.S. spying effort in Iran

WASHINGTON Fri Dec 9, 2011 6:55pm EST

EDITORS' NOTE:   Reuters and other foreign media are subject to Iranian restrictions on leaving the office to report, film or take pictures in Tehran. An undated picture received December 8, 2011 shows a member of Iran's revolutionary guard (R) pointing at the U.S. RQ-170 unmanned spy plane as he speaks with Amirali Hajizadeh, a revolutionary guard commander, at an unknown location in Iran. The unmanned U.S. drone Iran said on Sunday it had captured was programmed to automatically return to base even if its data link was lost, one key reason that U.S. officials say the drone likely malfunctioned and was not downed by Iranian electronic warfare. REUTERS/Sepah News.ir/ Handout

EDITORS' NOTE: Reuters and other foreign media are subject to Iranian restrictions on leaving the office to report, film or take pictures in Tehran. An undated picture received December 8, 2011 shows a member of Iran's revolutionary guard (R) pointing at the U.S. RQ-170 unmanned spy plane as he speaks with Amirali Hajizadeh, a revolutionary guard commander, at an unknown location in Iran. The unmanned U.S. drone Iran said on Sunday it had captured was programmed to automatically return to base even if its data link was lost, one key reason that U.S. officials say the drone likely malfunctioned and was not downed by Iranian electronic warfare.

Credit: Reuters/Sepah News.ir/ Handout

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The crash of a CIA drone in Iran has brought into the open what U.S. intelligence agencies would prefer kept secret: intense spying efforts in a country where the United States has no official presence.

Iran on Thursday aired with great flourish footage of the captured drone, which appeared largely intact. Pentagon and CIA spokesmen would not comment on whether it was the missing U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel unmanned aircraft.

A person familiar with the situation confirmed that the drone that crashed was on a surveillance mission over Iran.

It is believed to have crashed because of a malfunction and not from being shot down or computer-hacked by the Iranians, a U.S. official said on condition of anonymity.

Although there are risks that Iran could attempt to reverse engineer the technology, or sell it to other countries, like China, U.S. officials believe that Iran will not be able to mine the drone's computer systems to learn details of the U.S. surveillance mission.

U.S. surveillance of Iran through various means has been going on for years, U.S. officials and others with direct knowledge of the situation say.

A private U.S. defense expert, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that when he visited the command center at a U.S. military base in the Gulf region in 2008, it was clear that the installation was receiving multiple feeds of electronic surveillance information from inside Iran.

Some of the information appeared to be transmitted from high-altitude aircraft and some from electronic sensors which the United States had somehow installed on the ground in Iran, the expert said.

The United States has no official presence in Iran so it is difficult to determine exactly what is going on inside its borders. One recent incident has yet to be fully unraveled.

EXPLOSION IN ISFAHAN

On November 28, there were contradictory reports out of Iran on whether an explosion had occurred in the city of Isfahan, which is also home to a major nuclear site.

David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, said he has been studying imagery of that area and no damage was detected at the Isfahan nuclear site. But, he said, "it is credible there was an explosion, but not at the nuclear site."

He said it was puzzling that Iranians clearly said an explosion at a missile depot two weeks earlier had been an accident, but did not provide similar clarity about Isfahan. "We're trying to figure out what actually happened," he said.

"Explosions are happening in Iran, and Iran is not making a big deal out of them. They are either calling them accidents or saying they didn't happen, and therefore when these things continue to happen it could be because intelligence agencies are actually now playing sabotage," Albright said.

In the earlier November 12 incident, Iran said a massive blast at a military base west of Tehran killed 17 members of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, including the head of its missile program, in an accident while weapons were being moved.

When unexplained events occur that appear to be aimed against Iran's nuclear program, experts often question whether U.S. and Israeli intelligence services were at work.

Iran also has had alleged covert operations against the West come to light. Recently, the United States arrested a man accused of being involved in a plot by Iranian agents to kill Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Washington.

The U.S. government also accuses Iran of arming and funding Iraqi militias responsible for attacking American troops in Iraq.

U.S. officials do not appear to be the least bit disturbed about mishaps to Iran's nuclear and missile programs that include the Stuxnet computer virus that attacked centrifuges at the Natanz nuclear site.

"Whether it's due to technical difficulties, incompetence, or other reasons, some setbacks to Iran's activities are welcome," a U.S. official said on condition of anonymity.

(Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball; Writing by Tabassum Zakaria; Editing by Warren Strobel)

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Comments (43)
Ralphooo wrote:
This is because the US needs another war in the Mideast?

Dec 09, 2011 7:00pm EST  --  Report as abuse
AlkalineState wrote:
The drone was not spying on Iran. It was hiking.

Speaking of all this, though: Can we just take a moment to reflect on the fact we finally live in a time where we can earnestly say:

“I just checked my droid and it is confirmed. The enemy forces have captured our drone. Prepare systems for armed alert.”

Who knew the final frontier would still include donkeys and face veils? Baby steps :)

Dec 09, 2011 7:03pm EST  --  Report as abuse
TheVikingGuru wrote:
About the Drone in Iran.
I don,t often write or rant about anything, but this has me boiling mad.
Either the Drone is purposefully landed in Iran to collect an ongoing flow of information while the Iranians are trying to figure out what they got.
The other Option is that our tax dollars have been spent with Bafoon’s Idiots and alike. Surely the Drone has a self destruct.. Gobble Up device that renders the technology useless and not of any value in reference to reverse engineering.
We in America are too smart, (Oh God I hope) not to have this one planned out well in advance of eventualities. Well. That’s What I think and someone will have to work hard to guess otherwise.
Hopefully information is being gathered still and the Military Community and insiders are laughing Wholeheartedly. (The Viking Guru)

Dec 09, 2011 7:53pm EST  --  Report as abuse
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