From the archive, originally posted by: [ dot.ike ]
Ever get all creeped out about big brother? Feeling a bit safer, or
perhaps a bit less safe, by recent proliferation of surveillance
technologies being deployed? From video cameras to reading email,
everything can be spoofed, here’s an extremely interesting example:
UAV Fooled to Hide Iraq Murder
The US military uses unmanned aircraft to monitor battlefield
operations, among other technologies. These drone aircraft monitor,
in this case, heat signatures of battlefield combatants.
In this story of murder of an Iraqi police officer, the soldiers
involved staged an elaborate firefight to cover up the shooting, even
going so far as to mask the (then living) body of the victim by
hugging the victim as he was positioned in the faux battlefield.
UAV Fooled to Hide Iraq Murder
By Marty Graham
05:00 AM Mar, 22, 2007
CAMP PENDLETON, California — As they carried out the killing of an
Iraqi civilian, seven Marines and a Navy medic used their
understanding of the military’s airborne surveillance technology to
spoof their own systems, military hearing testimony charges.
“These are people who every day deal with such things and understand
how the images are gathered, as much as understand other tactical and
weapons issues,” says defense attorney David Brahms, who represents a
Marine who’s pleaded guilty to conspiracy and kidnapping in the case.
“They are warriors and this is what warriors do.”
The April 26, 2006, killing of disabled police officer Hashim Ibrahim
Awad has been the subject of eight months of military hearings at
Camp Pendleton near San Diego. Three defendants have pleaded not
guilty and are awaiting court martial on murder charges. Five others
have entered guilty pleas to lesser charges, receiving prison
sentences from one to eight years. As part of their plea bargains,
they’ve agreed to testify against the three remaining Marines.
The case is remarkable for the fact that the killers nearly got away
with their alleged crime right under the eye of the military’s
sophisticated surveillance systems. According to testimony, at least
three times the warriors took deliberate, and apparently effective,
measures to trick the unmanned aerial vehicles — UAVs in military
parlance — that watch the ground with heat-sensitive imaging by
night, and high-resolution video by day.
The images are routinely translated into PowerPoint presentations,
systems manufacturers say. The PowerPoint of this particular killing
was nearly accepted as proof of a “good shoot” until one of the
troops, Navy hospitalman Melson Bacos, stunned investigators with a
confession, according to the testimony of Special Agent James
Connolly with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, or NCIS.
The killing took place in the early morning darkness of April 26,
when a “snatch party” of three Marines and a medic set out to kill
and make an example of a suspected insurgent named Saleh Gowad, who’d
been captured and released many times, according to testimony. Not
finding him, they went next door and seized the sleeping Awad from
his home, while the four remaining squad members waited nearby.
They men allegedly flexicuffed Awad’s hands and marched him about a
half-mile to a bomb crater, where they bound his feet and positioned
him with a stolen shovel and an AK-47. Then they returned to an
attack position and shot him.
On the way, according to testimony, the forward party took at least
three steps to disguise its actions from aerial surveillance, steps
that initially persuaded investigators the killing was justified. One
Marine went forward and dug around in the crater. At the same time,
the three other troops crouched with Awad behind a low wall in what
Brahms described as a squad in a typical military posture.
They held that pose as the surveillance UAV passed over, creating an
infrared tableau of four troops watching a bomber dig a hole along
After the UAV passed, and they dodged being seen by a U.S.
helicopter, the four rose from behind the wall to march Awad to the
crater, according to the medic’s testimony. While they were moving
Awad the final 125 yards to his death, according to Bacos, they heard
the UAV return. Cpl. Trent Thomas quickly wrapped himself around Awad
so that the two men would appear as a single person on the heat-
reactive infrared sensors, according to testimony.
Then they put Awad in the hole where the Marine had posed with the
shovel seconds before, backed off and signaled. Six of the eight
troops opened fire — staging a firefight with a bomb-planting
“Congratulations, we just got away with murder, gents,” the squad
leader told them, according to Bacos’ testimony.
The routine investigation of the shooting — sparked by a complaint
from Awad’s family members to their sheikh — became a murder
investigation only because Bacos confessed, Connolly testified. His
confession so startled the investigators that they struggled between
reading him his rights and continuing the questioning, according to
lawyers who read the interrogation transcript.
The Marine defendants’ version of the events — a firefight with a
bomb-planting insurgent — was supported by the PowerPoint
presentation shown to NCIS agents by the Marines’ commanding officer.
The NCIS and lawyers close to the case would not confirm or deny that
the presentation was derived directly from the overhead feed, but
those familiar with the UAVs say PowerPoint presentations are
routinely produced from UAV surveillance.
Winslow Wheeler, the director of the Strauss Military Reform Project
at the Center for Defense Information in the Washington, D.C., area,
says he’s not surprised that the UAV’s surveillance system was
spoofed. Though he hasn’t heard of similar cases, the technology has
its limits, he says.
“When people learn how they work and what happens when they’re used,
they can figure out ways to trick them,” he says. “With infrared, the
heat signal doesn’t penetrate moisture or dust, so you can hide
things that way. Or you can heat them up. And when images go from a
recording to PowerPoint, you lose some resolution so the images
become harder to identify.”
Marines in Al Anbar province, where Awad was killed, rely on two
systems: Boeing’s ScanEagle and the Pioneer, made by AAI. The Pioneer
was most likely the system overhead that morning, because it was low
The aptly named Pioneer is one of the military’s original UAVs —
during the first Gulf War, a Pioneer recorded a video of a group of
Iraqis waving white flags and surrendering to the unmanned vehicle,
apparently having learned that bombers came right after the UAVs.
The Pioneer’s night-vision system uses forward-looking infrared, or
FLIR, the same technology used on many police helicopters. Its images
are black on white, or white on black, with warm objects like humans,
animals and car engines producing the contrasting hue.
“The image can be a little ‘ghosty,'” says Steven Reid, vice
president of unmanned systems at AAI, who refused to discuss any
aspect of tricking the technology, saying it’s classified. “It’s
amazing where the heat may be — if a car goes through there’s a
shadow on screen for a short while afterwards.”
Steps similar to those the alleged killers apparently took may
someday be a routine part of planning a crime, as U.S. law
enforcement agencies clamor to put UAVs over U.S. airspace for
domestic surveillance. But police departments that use FLIR say they
haven’t seen those tricks yet.
“People who are committing crimes at night are usually committing
crimes of opportunity or passion and they aren’t planning ahead,”
says Sgt. Bill Woods of the San Diego Police Department’s Airborne
Law Enforcement unit. “They think if there isn’t a spotlight on them,
they’re home free.”
In the Camp Pendleton case, Lance Cpl. Robert B. Pennington, Pfc.
John Jodka, Lance Cpl. Jerry Schumate Jr., Lance Cpl. Tyler Jackson
and Bacos have pleaded guilty to reduced charges and lost their ranks
as part of the deals. Cpl. Trent Thomas, Cpl. Marshall L. Magincalda
and squad leader Sgt. Lawrence Hutchins III are headed for formal
trial at separate courts martial scheduled for later this year.
The Marines and NCIS aren’t releasing the PowerPoint presentation
that initially cleared the men, saying it’s part of an ongoing
investigation. And they’ve rebuffed requests for the aerial imagery
of what happened that night, defense attorneys say.