Noah Shachtman - 'The Military's Search For A Device To Stop IEDs' One of the most common dangers to American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan has been homemade remote-controlled bombs. Wired national security writer Noah Shachtman details the ongoing effort to create a device that could stop IEDs before they strike.
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U.S. Military Searches For A Device To Stop IEDs

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U.S. Military Searches For A Device To Stop IEDs

U.S. Military Searches For A Device To Stop IEDs

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Noah Shachtman, writes the blog "Danger Room" for Wired magazine, about national security and new weaponry. He's a contributing editor at Wired and a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Shachtman recently wrote an article called "The Secret History of Iraq's Invisible War." He says that in the early years of the war, the U.S. military developed a technology so secret that soldiers would refuse to acknowledge its existence, and reporters who even mentioned the gear were promptly escorted out of the country.

But Shachtman was recently invited for a visit by a defense contractor which made this technology and was ready to discuss its evolution and capabilities. We're going to talk about what Shachtman learned.

Noah Shachtman, welcome to FRESH AIR. Describe what you mean about Iraq's invisible war.

Mr. NOAH SHACHTMAN (Contributing Editor, Wired; Nonresident Fellow, Brookings Institution): You know, we all see this war on television where bombs go off, and people shoot each other and territories won and territories lost and, you know, tribes are influenced or not.

But behind the scenes and in the airwaves, there's this invisible war. It's for control of the electromagnetic spectrum, the control of the airwaves. And basically what happens is, insurgents use garage-door openers or cell phones to set off bombs from a safe distance, to remotely trigger them. And the U.S. has tried all number of different ways to try to block those triggers with broadcasts of their own.

And so there's this competing battle that's going on, a sort of cat-and-mouse game, a technological game of chess.

GROSS: So the goal of the jammers, the radio-frequency jammers that the U.S. military has been designing, is to prevent the insurgents from using the remote control devices to blow up bombs.

Mr. SHACHTMAN: Yeah, basically the remote control bomb, for a number of years in Iraq, was the weapon of choice for the insurgency. It gave them a chance to attack U.S. troops at a safe distance. And at their peak, these bombs were wounding 1,000 soldiers a month. And then you think, on top of that, all the civilians that were hurt, as well. So this was the number one tool of the Iraq insurgency.

And so the U.S. goal was to get them back to what they call the Wile E. Coyote level of weaponry. You might remember from those old cartoons, Wile E. Coyote would push down the plunger, and then the bomb would explode. That's what the U.S. wanted to have happen here. They wanted to get the insurgents closer to their weapons so that they might be able to counterattack or interdict them.

GROSS: So you can actually see a target. You can see an insurgent about to blow something up.

Mr. SHACHTMAN: Yeah, exactly. And so over a number of years, these jammers got better and better and better, and sort of cut off that remote control bomb from the Iraq insurgents and forced them back to Wile E. Coyote levels.

GROSS: But the problem that the American military ended up having, is that these radio-frequency jamming devices were jamming the military's devices, too.

Mr. SHACHTMAN: Right. So these jammers really hadn't been used before in this context. And so they started out pretty crude, basically just screaming out a signal, at all times in all directions, you know, as if you and I were having a conversation, and a third person tried to talk in your ear just so you couldn't hear what I was saying.

So basically all these jammers were introduced into Iraq one after the other after the other, and they were all screaming into each other's ear, and they were all canceling each other out, not to mention all the U.S. radios that were being used. The jammers were canceling them out, too. And American troops were also using robots to try to diffuse bombs, and those were remotely operated, and the jammers would go after them, as well.

GROSS: So how did the military get around that? How were they able to prevent insurgents from using remote control devices to detonate IEDs while still allowing the military to communicate through radio frequencies?

Mr. SHACHTMAN: Well, one way they did it is something that, you know, we do instinctually, which is one of us talks, and then the other stops and listens to what the other has to say. And that's kind of what they kind of designed the jammers to do. They designed one to sort of radiate a signal and then stop for a signal and - while the other one did. And so they developed these timing protocols that allowed them to do that.

They also developed different techniques to jam these bombs. Rather than just broadcast out a signal, what's called active jamming, they did reactive jamming, which is they listened for that remote trigger, that cell phone that would set off a bomb, and they would intercept that signal, and then they would broadcast out something similar, but kind of confusing, to the receiver, stopping the bomb from going off.

GROSS: So did the radio-frequency jammers manage to get the insurgents back the Wile E. Coyote era?

Mr. SHACHTMAN: It took a long time. It took about four years. But eventually it did happen. Basically, the most sophisticated of these jammers not only could broadcast on a wide range of frequencies, but it could also spoof the software connection between one cell phone and another. And once that happened, the insurgents were pretty much cooked.

And you saw the rate of remote controlled improvised bombs drop dramatically from, you know, from 1,000 soldiers getting hurt a month to a dozen.

GROSS: So did the insurgents come up with alternate devices?

Mr. SHACHTMAN: Yeah, so the good news was the insurgents were robbed of their weapon of choice and basically had to go back to primitive means of fighting the Americans. The bad news is those primitive means worked pretty darn well, somewhat in Iraq but especially in Afghanistan.

I was there a couple years ago, in Helmand Province, and what the insurgents had done was use the terrain to rob the American forces of basically every high-tech protective mechanism they had developed since 2001.

They planted their bombs in gulleys and on mud paths so that these big, hulking armored vehicles that American troops would use to protect themselves, they couldn't go there.

They made their bombs out of wood and fertilizer so they couldn't be detected by metal detectors. They basically turned them into old-fashioned landmines that you'd just step on to detonate them. They didn't use these remote control triggers, and so as a result, the jammers were useless.

GROSS: And you write that a lot of the military equipment that was made for Iraq's urban warfare, on highways, just didn't work in the fields of Afghanistan, in places like Helmand.

Mr. SHACHTMAN: Yeah, so I remember this one foot patrol in a town called Moba Khan, it was really just a collection of farms and, you know, walking by several bombs that I just happened not to step on myself and that a Marine happened to notice before he stepped on. In fact, you know, I was involved in this - witness to this kind of day-long gun battle between these two compounds in Moba Khan, and honestly, I mean, I was kind of scared, but eth scariest moment of all was the walk back from those compounds, about a kilometer along a road that we knew had bombs planted in it somewhere.

That was probably the most terrifying thing I had to do, putting one foot in front of the other, and hoping to God that there wasn't a bomb underneath.

GROSS: What were you looking for with each step?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHACHTMAN: Honestly, what I was looking for was just to put my foot exactly where the guy before me had gone.

GROSS: But I mean, were you told to look to any particular evidence to indicate that there was, you know, a mine?

Mr. SHACHTMAN: No, these guys were so tired and so used to it that they didn't tell me to look for anything. I just tried to put my foot where they put their feet.

GROSS: Right, right. Well, meanwhile, you think that there was one occasion when you were in Iraq that one of the radio frequency jammers might have saved your life, when you were near an IED.

Mr. SHACHTMAN: Yeah, I was with a bomb squad in 2005, and they were based out of Baghdad. And they got a call to go pretty much outside the Abu Ghraib prison, to a place they called the Death X - because it was an intersection of two highways where people got blown up all the time.

And in the middle of the road was supposed to be a suspicious package, but instead was just a pair of pants, and I remember them being like: We're got the Dockers. We've got the Dockers.

But, you know, it was kind of a lighthearted moment, but the kind of creepy reality underneath was that insurgents would often put these fake packages out there, these fake bombs out there, as a way of luring out a bomb squad and then would have a real bomb nearby that they'd try to set off to get the responders.

And sure enough, as we were driving away from the pants, we rolled over an artillery shell wired up to a long-range cordless telephone, and that was an improvised bomb.

GROSS: But it didn't detonate?

Mr. SHACHTMAN: But it didn't go off. No, it didn't go off, which was good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHACHTMAN: That was a good thing. And, you know, you can't say for sure why something doesn't happen. You can't, like, prove a negative. But, you know, I'm pretty sure it was those jammers blocking the signal to that bomb.

GROSS: How long do you think it will be until jammers, like the ones we're using, are used against us?

Mr. SHACHTMAN: That's a great question. It's long - it's a hot topic in military circles because those jammers are pretty easily repurposed to block GPS signals, and basically everything the military does is dependent on GPS, from how it directs its bombs from the air to how it communicates to one another to how it keeps track of where everybody is on the battlefield.

GROSS: The drones.

Mr. SHACHTMAN: The drones, right. That's a big - they're reliant on GPS, as well. And so that's long been a concern is what happens if the GPS system starts getting jammed.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Noah Shachtman. He's a contributing editor at Wired magazine and the editor of its national security blog "Danger Room." He's also a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Noah Shachtman. He's a contributing editor at Wired magazine and the editor of its national security blog "Danger Room." He's also a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution. He writes about national security and new weapons and new strategies.

So this radio frequency jamming technology that we've been talking about, that has helped the U.S. military prevent remote control devices from detonating IEDs, this was supposed to be not only invisible technology but secret technology, and even reporters who found out about it were told that they could not write about it, they could not make it public.

And you know even of one reporter who was - well, what happened to him?

Mr. SHACHTMAN: So my friend and colleague David Axe, in 2006, was doing a little reporting for a blog of mine at the time, and he casually mentioned in a blog post that these jammers were, you know, operating in a Humvee convoy that he was riding in. And the next day, he got a - you know, some guys came into his tent and basically detained him for 36 hours and then promptly threw him out of Iraq.

And it took years for him to kind of like repair his reputation with the U.S. military for even mentioning that these jammers existed.

GROSS: Did you know about these jammers before, and you agreed to keep that secret?

Mr. SHACHTMAN: I tried to write about jammers but write about them carefully early on, but that didn't stop an Army colonel in Baghdad from hauling me into his office, showing me printed-out stacks of my online articles and calling me a friend to al-Qaeda for mentioning that these jammers existed.

You know, the sort of crazy part about the military and how it keeps its secrets or not, is in the early days of the Iraq war, companies were issuing press releases about how they had sold jammers and what these jammers did and all their various characteristics.

And then the military was like oh, wait, wait, wait, actually all that stuff is secret. You can't write about it. So I tried to move forward on it but step carefully.

GROSS: So meanwhile, ITT, which is the contractor that manufactures many of these radio-frequency jammers, invited you in to talk with you about the technology and where it's headed. So what changed that now they want to talk about it, and they're able to talk about, they want you to write about it?

Mr. SHACHTMAN: Well, a couple things changed. Number one, the threat of radio control bombs has subsided a bit. Number two, there's some really fierce competition for some truly enormous contracts from the military for the next generation of jammers. And so ITT, like every other business, wants a little bit of positive press, and so they knew that I had written about the fight against improvised bombs several times, and they knew a way to - a way of handling sensitive information. And so they reached out to me.

I was even more surprised when they started talking about the capabilities of these jammers, and I was completely shocked when they actually invited me to their lab to see the next generation of jammers.

GROSS: So what did you learn about the next generation of jammers?

Mr. SHACHTMAN: What I learned is that the military has got a lot of ambition for these devices, much more than just jamming. They want them basically to become spying devices, to figure out where people are talking on their cell phones and what they're saying. They want them to be able to block enemy drones or enemy sensors. They want them to be able to block out GPS, if need be. And they want them all to be networked together so you only have to operate one, maybe, in a given convoy instead of having them all sort of blast at the same time. So it's a real sort of leap ahead.

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about drones, those remote controlled planes that can spy or drop bombs. And they really are changing how wars are being fought by the U.S. military. Do you want to describe some of the ways drones are changing warfare now?

Mr. SHACHTMAN: Well, let's just look at all the different wars that the U.S. seems to be in at the moment, right. In Pakistan, drones are kind of the weapon of choice. If you look at Yemen, there's drone operations happening there pretty regularly, and you look at Libya, NATO's first combat casualty there was a drone, a drone helicopter.

So really all over the world, the U.S. military is now turning to its flying robots as its first troops of choice.

GROSS: Do you have an estimate for how many drones are out there now?

Mr. SHACHTMAN: The answer is thousands, but it's kind of a misleading number because most drones are actually these tiny kind of hand-held model-airplane-looking things, that there's a lot of them, but they don't necessarily have the kind of strategic impact that, like, the Predator or Reaper drones do. And those are the bigger ones that you hear about that are, you know, doing so much damage in Pakistan.

GROSS: Yeah, I was reading about those new bug-sized drones that are under development. Maybe some of them are already being used. I was reading about them in the New York Times. What do you know about those really small drones?

Mr. SHACHTMAN: Yeah, it's been an area of interest for years at places like DARPA. That's the Pentagon's kind of way-out, sci-fi research arm. And that sci-fi is becoming reality.

They've got drones that are, you know, the size of your hand, maybe two hands. They've got flapping wings like real bugs or birds. And, you know, they've got prototypes that are flying around.

GROSS: And what are they designed to do? What does the military hope that they will be able to do?

Mr. SHACHTMAN: Spy on people - without them noticing. You know, maybe it'll just - I mean, this is now I'm projecting forward, okay, like 10, 15, 20 years in the future, but, you know, it could definitely happen that, you know, there'll be something flying in the air. You'll just think it's a little bird hovering around, and instead it'll have a camera, and it'll be watching what you do and listening to what you say.

GROSS: Now in terms of the Predator drone, which can and does drop bombs, they are remote controlled from places far away, sometimes as far away as the United States, where, you know, somebody would be controlling a drone that's in Pakistan. There are concerns that it's, for the military, like a video game, you know, where because you are so distant from and detached from the actual target, that you don't feel the actual human cost of the bomb that is being dropped, especially if there's collateral damage and people, who are not your targets, are accidentally killed.

You had the opportunity to actually sit with men who are actually controlling drones. This was in Vegas, am I right?

Mr. SHACHTMAN: Yeah, so north of Vegas, pretty far north, you go up past the city, past the big prison that's out there in the desert, and you keep going and going and going to this little, you know, sort of one-street town with a mini-casino off the edge.

And just past the casino, inside the gate, is a pretty nondescript office building, and inside that office building is basically a series of cockpits. And each one of those cockpits has guys flying in Iraq or Afghanistan.

And, you know, there's something to be said about the argument that this removes people from the consequences of warfare. I remember sitting with this one pilot, and he told me a story about how he dropped his first bomb using a Reaper drone - that's the Predator's kind of bigger version - and then he went home afterwards and fed his daughter blueberry pancakes, her favorite. And that's a pretty odd juxtaposition, to go from bombs to blueberry pancakes.

On the other hand, though, on the other hand, guys like him are very professionally trained and spend years and years and years rehearsing this stuff. And, you know, if nothing else, collateral damage is a big professional mistake and a sign that something went wrong, and these guys do not like to get things wrong.

GROSS: Noah Shachtman will be back in the second half of the show. He's a contributing editor at Wired magazine and edits its national security blog "Danger Room." He's also a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Let's back to our interview with Noah Shachtman. He's a contributing editor at Wired magazine and edits its national security blog "Danger Room." He's also a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution. Shachtman has reported from Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, the Pentagon, Los Alamos and military bases around the country.

General Petraeus is likely to become the new CIA director and Leon Panetta, secretary of Defense. So just looking at General Petraeus, who says he would, you know, resign from military if he becomes the CIA director, what does it say to you that a military leader is likely to be heading the CIA?

Mr. SHACHTMAN: Well, it's not just Petraeus, right? The director of national intelligence is a former general, Jim Clapper. The head of the National Security Agency is a general, Keith Alexander. You know, there's an increasing fusion of the military world and in the intelligence world. And you see that with Petraeus going to the CIA and Leon Panetta going to the Pentagon.

What used to be very distinct activities governed by different legal regimes, reporting to different panels in Congress have increasingly - the lines between them have gotten increasingly fuzzy.

GROSS: So has the military and the CIA been operating more closely in Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan than in previous wars?

Mr. SHACHTMAN: Yeah, for sure. You know, you just look at that raid on Abbottabad on bin Laden's compound. You know, you had the guys from Joint Special Operations Command working with the CIA kind of hand-in-glove, and that kind of thing didn't often happen before. But starting in 2001, you know, in the initial push on Afghanistan and through today, that cooperation has gotten tighter and tighter and tighter.

GROSS: And has that cooperation, do you know, been welcomed by the CIA and the military? Or is there more of a turf war between them?

Mr. SHACHTMAN: It's like more and more of this war, this global war that America has spent $1 trillion on, more and more of it is receding into the shadows, right? You've got these private contractors who are maybe accountable, maybe they're not. They're using technologies that are highly classified that were, you know, the great unwashed aren't allowed to see. A lot of this war is now being conducted by secretive special operations units and by, you know, clandestine CIA paramilitary organizations. And there was a time when you could see the war unfold at least a little bit on TV and that time has kind of passed.

GROSS: Well, you know, one of the consequences of that is that we lose track more and more - I think the American public - that we're involved in these wars. Because we don't see those same - the same number of battles on TV. They're being, some of its remote controlled, some of it is so secretive. So I think Americans are growing increasingly detached.

Mr. SHACHTMAN: Yeah. And I think because it's very difficult to tell, you know, those secret warriors' stories, it's hard to keep support for the wars up too, right? I mean at least in Iraq even when things were going to hell, at least you could hear from those individual soldiers. Now, you know, if it's all being done, you know, under the cover of night, it's pretty tough to get them to talk and you can't really hear what it's really like. And I think that that is one of many reasons why, you know, war fatigue seems to have set in so greatly.

GROSS: So in your reporting, you know, understanding the military's need to keep some operations and technology a secret and at the same time as a journalist wanting to report on things and uncover things, how do you try to maintain a balance between secrecy and uncovering? And how often have you been given guidelines by the military?

Mr. SHACHTMAN: It's a difficult and it's a fine line to walk. But it's one that if you apply a little common sense, you know, I don't think it's that hard to figure out what's really secret and what's just stamped secret by some, you know, government bureaucrat.

You know, the fact that the U.S. military has jammers and that they block certain kinds of remote-controlled bombs, you know, that's not such a big secret. What frequencies they use particularly, you know, what their exact ranges is, OK, that's a legitimate secret. That's something that could threaten the lives of soldiers on the battlefield and that I choose not to report.

You know, similarly, there are things that I, you know, I've seen in Iraq and Afghanistan that are secret, I'm not even sure why. You know, it's like a particular mapping technology or something that I mean honestly like Google Earth is cooler and better.

Here's a great example. The military has a base in quote/unquote "Southwest Asia," where they run the air war from, where they run the air war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and you are totally not allowed to say where that base is or what its name is. That being said, you can find it on Google, right? So a lot of what the military says is secret really isn't that secret.

So I guess the test I use is: is it really going to threaten anybody's life in a place like Iraq or Afghanistan? Am I really going to put a soldier in jeopardy? If that's the case, then no way am I going to report on it. I'm not going to jeopardize one of those guys. But if it's just one of these kind of secrets of convenience, then forget about it.

GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. SHACHTMAN: Oh, it's my pleasure.

GROSS: Noah Shachtman is a contributing editor at Wired magazine and edits its national security blog "Danger Room." He's also a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution. You'll find links to his recent articles on our website,

Coming up, online dating. We talk with Nick Paumgarten about his article in the current New Yorker about how online dating sites make their matches.

This is FRESH AIR.

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