US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told a Fox News interviewer Tuesday, Dec. 13, that the US stealth drone campaign "along the Iran-Afghanistan border" will “absolutely” continue, despite the loss of a valuable and sophisticated drone to the Iranians. The US military has no plans to halt the drone operation out of Western Afghanistan, he insisted. “Those operations have to be protected in order to do the job and the mission that they’re involved with,” he said.
Panetta's affirmative was essentially a negative, say DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources.
US drone flights over Iran will not be renewed because the Afghanistan-Iranian border will not be crossed. Therefore, the downing of the spy drone by Iran has seriously impaired US – and consequently – Israel's military-intelligence operations. The Pentagon clearly fears Iran has acquired the means to down and capture more US unmanned aerial vehicles.
This directly contradicts comments by Representative Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), who before a Foreign Policy Initiative-sponsored forum in Washington repeatedly dismissed as false Iranian claims that one of its electronic warfare units brought down the RQ-170 Sentinel. He insisted it had fallen into Iranian hands because of a technical malfunction.
If it was only a malfunction, DEBKA-Net-Weekly asks, why has the US halted its drone flights over Iran?
In similar episodes in the past, the US military and the CIA normally reacted by increasing drone flights over hostile territory to prove to the enemy they have not been slowed down or abandoned their missions.
A world-class electronic warfare master helped Iran capture the drone
Since Saturday, Dec. 4, when the news broke of the Iranian RQ-170 capture, Western and Middle East intelligence circles have stopped contradicting the Iranian version of a cyber attack and are indeed coming around to the conviction that this attack extended beyond the drone.
Some suggest that the Iranians not only cracked the Sentinel's secret software but also penetrated the command and control center running the drones from CIA Headquarters at Langley in McClean, Virginia and delved into the satellite connection between Langley and the drone.
This assumption led to the conclusion that, since a feat that comprehensive was beyond the known capabilities of Iran, outside help must have been forthcoming from one of the few world-class masters of electronic warfare – one in command of the technology for filtering through billions of coded communications relayed from Langley to satellites and cracking the coded links between Langley and one specific satellite and between that satellite and the drone.
The same master hand would also have been able to reprogram the directives guiding the satellite and the RQ-170 – unbeknownst to the CIA headquarters – by falsifying the images appearing on the screens in Langley. The drone would have been misrepresented as complying with its original programming although it had been commandeered by Iran and was obeying its new masters.
The vehicle's CIA handlers in Langley did not activate its self-destruct mechanism because they were not aware it was out of their control. By the time it was discovered, it was too late; the mechanism along with the rest of the drone's systems had been disconnected and passed to its new controllers.
The misfortune was compounded by the discovery that the RQ-170 was captured on its very first mission over Iran. Its seizure at the moment it crossed over the border from Afghanistan meant that it fell into waiting hands which were alerted in advance about the precise moment of its secret arrival.
Iran credited with intelligence – though not cyber – coup
This information could only have originated in one or two places – or both:
1. Access to the decision to send the RQ-170 over Iran that was reached at a meeting attended by four or at most five people: President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Panetta, National Security Adviser Tom Donelon, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey and Central Intelligence Director David Petraeus.
2. Round-the-clock monitoring of the coded communications bouncing between the command center in Langley, a specific satellite and the Sentinel drone.
Whoever staged the cyber attack on the unmanned vehicle must have had knowledge of the day and hour of its maiden flight into Iranian airspace and the place in Kandahar from which it was sent on its journey. They would also have taken for granted that the US drone was the precursor to an imminent attack on Iran's nuclear installations and been concerned to preclude the RQ-170 from making unwelcome discoveries.
It is seriously doubted in Washington and by other Western experts that Iran is in command of the sophisticated cyber systems for managing this complex task.