Satellite Intelligence: Iran 2012, Iraq 2003

The big news today looks and sounds familiar. Here’s USA Today (3/8/12):

Here’s what that Associated Press piece is reporting:

VIENNA — Satellite images of an Iranian military facility appear to show trucks and earth-moving vehicles at the site, indicating an attempted cleanup of radioactive traces possibly left by tests of a nuclear-weapon trigger, diplomats told the Associated Press on Wednesday….

Two of the diplomats said the crews at the Parchin military site may be trying to erase evidence of tests of a small experimental neutron device used to set off a nuclear explosion….

The diplomats said they suspect attempts at sanitization because some of the vehicles at the scene appeared to be haulage trucks and other equipment suited to carting off potentially contaminated soil from the site.

All of that sounds very much like what Secretary of State Colin Powell said about Iraq in his famous United Nations presentation on February 5, 2003. Which yielded coverage like this:

USA Today (2/6 03):

A satellite photo showed a munitions facility at Taji, 18 miles north of Baghdad, where the presence of special security units and a decontamination vehicle suggested the presence of chemical weapons. A later photo of the same site, taken Dec. 22 as inspectors were due, showed the location had been “sanitized,” Powell said. Similar cleanups took place at almost 30 sites, Powell said, with the activity peaking in November — just after the U.N. decided to deploy inspectors.

Washington Post (2/6/03):

[Colin Powell] showed satellite photographs of buildings, said to be chemical and biological weapons bunkers, with “decontamination trucks” parked outside, and subsequent photos where the vehicles had been removed, indicating that the site had been “cleaned up” before inspectors could arrive.

Another set of aerial photographs, said to have been taken two days before inspections began in November, showed a convoy of trucks and a crane he said indicated pre-inspection “housecleaning.” Drawings he said were made from information provided by defectors who had worked in top weapons positions depicted mobile biological and chemical laboratories, mounted on both trucks and rail, designed to evade inspectors.

Powell’s presentation relied heavily on sensitive U.S. intelligence — satellite imagery, communications intercepts and defector interviews — that officials usually guard zealously but agreed to release to make as compelling a case as possible to skeptical domestic and foreign audiences.

Washington Post (2/6/03)

Equally persuasive to weapons experts were satellite photographs of sites that Powell said were used to store or transfer toxic chemicals for bombs, missiles and rockets. In one series of photos taken last spring and summer, Iraqis appeared to have scraped away a layer of topsoil from what was described as a transshipment point near Al Moussaid chemical complex — a move intended to eliminate evidence that might be discovered later by inspectors, Powell said.

In another series of photos, a weapons bunker near the town of al-Taji appeared to have been furnished with a special guard station and a decontamination truck. In a later photo of the same facility — taken on December 22, when UN inspections were well underway — the decontamination truck and guard had disappeared.

“The bunkers were clean when the inspectors got there,” Powell said. “They found nothing.”…

Experts familiar with Iraq’s chemical weapons program said Powell’s satellite photos, while open to interpretation, appeared to back the Bush administration’s claims.

Of course, this is not to say that the current Iran images are just as misleading as the previous ones from Iraq. But you’d hope that journalists covering these new revelations might recall the mistakes of the past in their reporting–and remind readers that there’s good reason to be skeptical about officials’ satellite claims.

UPDATE: Today the New York Times handles these images with appropriate skepticism. As Rick Gladstone and William Broad put it, the images “according to some news reports suggest efforts by the Iranians to cleanse the site before permitting an inspection. Some experts in satellite reconnaissance have discounted those reports, saying it would be impossible to determine such information from the images.”

They go on to report that:

private specialists in satellite imagery have scrutinized the sprawling Parchin complex, on a desert site not far from Tehran.

Paul Brannan, a senior analyst at the Institute for Science and International Security, a private group in Washington that tracks nuclear proliferation, said he had looked at many images but so far had not found the specific site or signs of any cleanup activity. But he added that the massive scale of development at Parchin made the problem quite challenging. “There’s no way to know whether or not the activity you see in a particular satellite image is cleansing or just regular work,” he said. “They build a lot of stuff. There’s a lot of activity there – always.”

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.