Douglas Birch – AP December 10, 2011
Iran’s capture of the CIA’s surveillance drone bristling with advanced spy technology is more than a propaganda coup and intelligence windfall for the Tehran government. The plane’s loss has peeled back another layer of secrecy from expanding U.S. operations against Iran’s nuclear and military programs.
Just as the Soviet Union’s downing of an American U-2 spy plane revealed a hidden aspect of the Cold War, Iran’s recovery of the drone has shed light on the espionage that is part of U.S.-Iran hostilities.
Iran has charged the United States or its allies with waging a campaign of cyber-warfare and sabotage, and of assassinating some Iranian scientists. The United States has accused the Iranian government of helping kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan and plotting to murder the Saudi ambassador in Washington.
“It’s beginning to look like there’s a thinly veiled, increasingly violent, global cloak-and-dagger game afoot,” Thomas Donnelly, a former government official and military expert with the American Enterprise Institute, said at a Washington conference.
The covert operations in play are “much bigger than people appreciate,” said Stephen Hadley, former national security adviser under President George W. Bush. “But the U.S. needs to be using everything it can.”
Hadley said that if Iran continues to defy U.N. resolutions and doesn’t curb its nuclear ambitions, the quiet conflict “will only get nastier.”
Some historians and foreign policy experts compared the drone incident to the Soviet Union’s 1960 downing of the U-2 spy plane and pilot Francis Gary Powers. While those two countries sparred publicly on many issues, the world only occasionally glimpsed each side’s secret operations.
“When I first heard about the drone, my first thought was thank goodness there wasn’t a pilot in it,” said Francis Gary Powers Jr., the son of the U-2 pilot and founder of the Cold War Museum.
“They were both on intelligence-gathering missions. They were both doing photo reconnaissance. They were both supporting the U.S. government’s intelligence-gathering to find out intelligence about our adversaries,” Powers said. The difference this time, Powers said, was that “there are no family members that have to be notified, there’s no prisoner in a foreign country.”
The U-2 downing shocked U.S. military planners, who thought the advanced aircraft flew too high to be hit by a Soviet missile. Likewise, Iran says it used advanced electronic warfare measures to detect, hack and bring down an RQ-170 Sentinel drone.
Iran aired TV footage Thursday of what current and former U.S. officials confirm is the missing Sentinel. The robotic aircraft suffered what appeared to be only minimal damage.
Iran protested Friday to the United Nations about what it described as “provocative and covert operations” by the United States. The Tehran government called the flight by the drone a “blatant and unprovoked air violation” that was “tantamount to an act of hostility.”