Profile: Virginia Company Provides Satellite Photographs Of Iraq

Weekend Edition Saturday: October 19, 2002

Have Satellite, Will Spy


Iraq is one of the most-photographed countries in the entire world, from hundreds of miles up, that is. Every few hours, some satellite passes overhead to gaze down on swimming pools, mosques, houses and yes, military facilities. Now sometimes these facilities are warehouses, but it's difficult to tell from that great distance if they hold chemical weapons or infant formula. Analysts need extra clues and reliable ones are hard to come by. NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.


Tim Brown has never been to Iraq, but he feels like he has, he's been staring at satellite images of the place for so long. Brown works for an independent organization called the Global Security. He says his goal is to give the public direct access to information, like satellite data, as Iraq and the US edge closer to war.

Mr. TIM BROWN (Global Security): You have the official government view, and then you have, you know, let's say, the Iraqi view, and somewhere in between there's, you know, the truth.

KESTENBAUM: Last month United Nations weapons inspectors noted that there was new construction at an old Iraqi nuclear site, so Brown put commercial satellite pictures on the Web, showing the new buildings. Pretty soon, to his surprise, an Iraqi official was waving those very pictures around, denying the charges and offering tours to journalists. The tours, it turns out, were brief and unilluminating, but still, the picture seemed to have provoked action.

Mr. BROWN: The idea that the Iraqis look at our Web site, have to be aware of it and react to it, I think, is sort of breathtaking.

KESTENBAUM: Iraq says it has no weapons of mass destruction, but the world is doubtful. Brown's group is one of a handful of organizations outside the military with a database of satellite photos and the skills to analyze them. Today, Brown is expecting a visit from Julian Borger, the US bureau chief for The Guardian, a British newspaper. Borger arrives at Tim Brown's office, which is in the basement of a building in Alexandria, Virginia. He's carrying a hand-drawn map. It was sketched for him by an Iraqi defector who claimed to have worked on chemical weapons.

Mr. JULIAN BORGER (The Guardian): Bits and pieces check out, and other pieces are a bit more dubious, so we--you know, because it is a very explosive issue at the moment, we're being very cautious about it.

KESTENBAUM: Borger wants to see if this guy is for real. He wants to look at satellite pictures and see if this lab really exists. The defector claimed to have worked with a deadly nerve agent called VX.

Mr. BORGER: This site, he said, was where they were working on turning it into a dusting agent, which is a sort of solid dust form, which makes it much more difficult for troops to deal with, and so it's the sort of Holy Grail of working with VX.

KESTENBAUM: The sketched map to the possible weapons site shows a few roads, and next to them, in very neat Iraqi script, are directions. Tim Brown takes a look.

Mr. BROWN: It's sort of a treasure hunt, trying to find these places. You know, it's sort of `Go down this street and then you make a left, then you go past these checkpoints, and then you make a right, and then you go, you know, about a mile and a half and then it's the building on the left.'

KESTENBAUM: Brown sits at his computer and pulls up a satellite picture on a large screen. This one comes from a commercial satellite run by a company called DigitalGlobe. It shows the region in question, a few miles west of Baghdad near a lake. The place, it turns out, is a kind of resort for government officials. There are rows of big houses, a monument with a long shadow, suggesting it's quite tall, and nearby, a round shape. Brown zooms in, until it feels like we're a big inflatable Snoopy looking down on a Thanksgiving Day parade.

Mr. BROWN: I will actually go in a little bit more, so you can see, you know, it's a small Ferris wheel.

KESTENBAUM: That is a Ferris wheel.

Mr. BROWN: Yeah. And then that's a merry-go-round, and then there's a thing that spins right here. It's like a Disneyland for the Iraqis.

KESTENBAUM: The map says the chemical weapons site should be across the street from a large palace here, but the satellite image doesn't show anything like it.

Mr. BORGER: Looking at this map and then looking at the actual satellite photographs doesn't increase my confidence in him as a source.

KESTENBAUM: Borger takes out a second hand-drawn map. This one is supposed to show the location of a hidden underground lab where nuclear research is going on. It points to a place on the outskirts of Baghdad. Tim Brown clicks the mouse, and a crisp image of Baghdad appears on the screen. Borger checks his map. The lab is shown as being hidden below a public park, by a river, a canal and a traffic circle. He and Brown squint at the computer screen.

Mr. BROWN: Yeah, see...

Mr. BORGER: There's the canal.

Mr. BROWN: Yeah. Oh, so I see. It's actually that little thing right there. See that?

Mr. BORGER: Oh, yeah. That's cool.

Mr. BROWN: There's the bridge...

Mr. BORGER: Yeah.

Mr. BROWN: ...right?

KESTENBAUM: It appears to be a match. This time the defector's map seems to make sense. But who's to say there's really a nuclear lab under this park? Maybe it's just a park. Tim Brown says he might post it on the Web. The picture might force the US government to comment, or the Iraqi government might again respond. It could offer tours to journalists--or maybe it won't. Brown says that might be more telling. David Kestenbaum, NPR News, Washington.

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