The picture, taken from directly overhead, shows an airfield in Pakistan. It looks like a video frame from one of the American killer drones that have been hunting Taliban and al-Qaida fighters there. But that can't be: The drones are right there in the frame, sitting on the ground. So who took the picture?
A plain old commercial satellite, apparently. The image was freely available on Google Earth until Wednesday, when the News of Pakistan published a story about it. At that point, it vanished, as other sensitive military pictures have done. Today, you can still view it on the Web site of the Times of London. If you're a Pakistani citizen, it confirms that the United States has been launching its killer drones from inside your country, contrary to your government's pretense of opposition. And if you're a Taliban or al-Qaida fighter, it's your chance to look down on the drones the way they've been looking down on you.
This isn't the first time miscreants have used Google Earth. Two years ago, the Times notes, "its images of British military bases were found in the homes of Iraqi insurgents." And last year, "India said that the militants who attacked Mumbai in November had used Google Earth to familiarize themselves with their targets." Terrorists may not have their own drones or satellites yet. But they know how to use publicly available imagery.
The picture, together with a second picture of the same site taken sometime this year and posted on Google Earth, destroys much of the political advantage of the U.S. drones. The drones aren't supposed to be a U.S. military presence in Pakistan. They're unmanned, and until now, they were thought to be flown exclusively from the Afghan border. The satellite images, backed by expert analysis, prove otherwise. The drones are on Pakistani soil. And if the drones are there, so are the U.S. personnel who physically manage them.
The U.S. government, comically, continues to pretend otherwise. Here's the Times' description of its conversation with a U.S. embassy spokesman in Pakistan:
"No. No. No. No. No. We unequivocally and emphatically can tell you that there is no basing of US troops in Pakistan," he said. "There is no basing of US Air Force, Navy, Marines, Army, none, on the record and emphatically. I want that to be very clear. And that is the answer any way you want to put it. There is no base here, no troops billeted. We do not operate here."
He said that he could not comment on CIA operations.
You get the picture. The CIA operates the drones, as has been thoroughly reported, so that the military can deny a presence in Pakistan. On paper, the ruse works because presence is just a concept. But pictures of the base drive home its reality.
So why are we basing the drones in Pakistan? Why not just fly them from Afghanistan, as advertised? The Pakistani base is "within minutes of potential al-Qaeda and Taliban targets," the Times observes. "It allows Predator drones to come and go, seen by few civilians." And it "allows the drones to observe and attack targets within Pakistan's borders without disrupting the country's air defenses by crossing" from Afghanistan.
Of these possible reasons, the most intriguing is proximity. The base is 200 miles southwest of Quetta, a Taliban and al-Qaida stronghold. The drones reportedly have a maximum speed of 135 miles per hour. To capitalize fully on actionable intelligence, you have to move fast. That's how the drones killed 60 insurgents in two strikes last weekend, before they could disperse. Every minute—and therefore, every mile—counts.
This is a crucial difference between the view from the drone and the view from Google Earth. Google gets its images every few months, when a satellite passes overhead. Neither of its pictures of the Pakistani airfield is dated, except for the year. The drones don't have to wait that long. They can go wherever we want them to, sending back instantaneous images. And if the images are sufficiently hot and incriminating, we can pull the trigger.