Why Google Earth Can’t Show You Israel

By Hamed Aleaziz

Since Google launched its Google Earth feature in 2005, the company has become a worldwide leader in providing high-resolution satellite imagery. In 2010, Google Earth allowed the world to see the extent of the destruction in post-earthquake Haiti. This year, Google released similar images after Japan’s deadly tsunami and earthquake. With just one click, Google can bring the world—and a better understanding of far-away events—to your computer.

There is one entire country, however, that Google Earth won’t show you: Israel.

That’s because, in 1997, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act, one section of which is titled, “Prohibition on collection and release of detailed satellite imagery relating to Israel.” The amendment, known as the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment, calls for a federal agency, the NOAA’s Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs, to regulate the dissemination of zoomed-in images of Israel.


Bahrain’s Protests Taper Off

…with little public support from the west and Arab states.

By Ian Black


A protester waves a Bahraini flag from the top of a tree during a rally organized by Lebanon’s Hezbollah in front of the U.N. headquarters in Beirut March 16, 2011, in support of Bahraini protesters.

REUTERS/Cynthia Karam

History and geography explain why Bahrain’s peaceful uprising was the early exception to the “Arab spring”, which began with high hopes in Tunisia and Egypt but now faces bloody uncertainties in Libya and Syria.

Sitting astride the faultline between the Shia and Sunni worlds, the small Gulf island state lies at the heart of a strategically sensitive region that is dominated by bitter rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia – both very tough neighbors.

Bahrain was always going to be a prime candidate if unrest erupted in the Arabian peninsula. But it was not easy to predict that the Al-Khalifa dynasty, Sunnis who rule over a restive 70% Shia majority, would react so brutally when protests mushroomed in February. Still, the activists who streamed to Manama’s Pearl roundabout in a deliberate echo of Cairo’s Tahrir Square were demanding reform, not the overthrow of the regime.

By regional standards, King Hamad was not the most repressive of rulers. Bahrain, unlike Saudi Arabia, has a parliament and a legal opposition. Bahrain’s press operated within “red lines” but had a margin for maneuver. Expensive western PR companies were employed to promote the country’s image.

Prospects for political change looked reasonable until last summer when a sudden security crackdown began. The government was alarmed by joint Shia-Sunni demands to investigate the acquisition of prime real estate by the royals: Google Earth showed just how much of the island – where public beaches are rare – was already owned by the Al-Khalifa family.

Last October the mildly Islamist Shia opposition party al-Wefaq won a plurality of seats in the lower house of parliament – despite being smeared by the government as Hezbollah-type extremists. But progressives in Bahrain emphasize nationality, not religious sect – thus the catchy slogan “not Shias, not Sunnis, we are all Bahrainis”.

Bahrain’s politics are as local as any other country’s, though international pressures count for a lot, too. Projecting an image of stability also mattered hugely for a leading financial centre that has been struggling to compete with flashier and wealthier Dubai.

As the base for the US Fifth Fleet, Bahrain is important to Washington, which values Hamad’s bellicose attitude towards Tehran – revealed in WikiLeaks’ releases of state department cables. The king’s choice of a Bahraini Jewish woman as ambassador to the US was a savvy move.

Long-standing claims of Iranian meddling have not been substantiated.

But Saudi concerns about Bahrain quickly became apparent in the face of the unrest just across the causeway from the kingdom’s oil-producing Shia eastern province. What the Bahraini opposition calls an “occupation force” was deployed by agreement with the Saudi-dominated Gulf Co-operation Council and portrayed as answering the call of a sister nation in need.

The Saudis were already unsettled by the way Barack Obama had washed his hands of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Thus their insistence on maintaining regional order – triggering the grim repression that has now become a permanent feature of Bahraini life.

Britain and France have announced reviews of arms sales and the European Union is speaking out. The US has expressed concern but its public comments have been muted. Washington’s tone, similar to that it uses with Israel, is of a candid friend. It has conspicuously failed to support the demands of the protesters. The contrast with Libya could hardly be greater.

Arab leaders back Bahrain to the hilt. Only Iraq’s Shia prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has dared to criticize Hamad’s crackdown. Iran – ignoring its own appalling record of crushing peaceful protests – is warning gleefully that the Saudis are “playing with fire”.

For most observers, the lesson is clear: western and Arab governments alike badly need the Gulf region’s energy and financial resources.

That’s why Bahrain’s spring is already over.

Ian Black, Middle East editor


Google Earth Reveals Secret History of US Base in Pakistan


google image
The original Google Earth picture:  The Shamsi airbase in 2006 with three drones apparently visible.

Courtesy Jeremy Page, The Times

The US was secretly flying unmanned drones from the Shamsi airbase in Pakistan’s southwestern province of Baluchistan as early as 2006, according to an image of the base from Google Earth.

The image that is no longer on the site but which was obtained by The News, Pakistan’s English language daily newspaper shows what appear to be three Predator drones outside a hangar at the end of the runway. The Times also obtained a copy of the image, whose co-ordinates confirm that it is the Shamsi airfield, also known as Bandari, about 200 miles southwest of the Pakistani city of Quetta.

An investigation by The Times yesterday revealed that the CIA was secretly using Shamsi to launch the Predator drones that observe and attack al-Qaeda and Taliban militants around Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.

US special forces used the airbase during the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, but the Pakistani Government said in 2006 that the Americans had left. Both sides have since denied repeatedly that Washington has used, or is using, Pakistani bases to launch drones. Pakistan has also demanded that the US cease drone attacks on its tribal area, which have increased over the last year, allegedly killing several high-value targets as well as many civilians.

The Google Earth image now suggests that the US began launching Predators from Shamsi built by Arab sheiks for falconry trips at least three years ago.

The advantage of Shamsi is that it provides a discreet launchpad within minutes of Quetta a known Taliban staging post as well as Taliban infiltration routes into Afghanistan and potential militant targets farther afield.

Google Earth’s current image of Shamsi about 100 miles south of the Afghan border and 100 miles east of the Iranian one undoubtedly shows the same airstrip as the image from 2006.

There are no visible drones, but it does show that several new buildings and other structures have been erected since 2006, including what appears to be a hangar large enough to fit three drones. Perimeter defences apparently made from the same blast-proof barriers used at US and Nato bases in Afghanistan have also been set up around the hangar.

A compound on the other side of the runway appears to have sufficient housing for several dozen people, as well as neatly tended lawns. Three military aviation experts shown the image said that the aircraft appeared to be MQ1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicles the model used by the CIA to observe and strike militants on the Afghan border.

The MQ1 Predator carries two laser-guided Hellfire missiles, and can fly for up to 454 miles, at speed of up to 135mph, and at altitudes of up to 25,000ft, according to the US Air Force website

The News reported the drones were Global Hawks which are generally used only for reconnaissance, flying for up to 36 hours, at more than 400mph and an altitude of up to 60,000ft. Damian Kemp, an aviation editor with Jane’s Defence Weekly, said that the three drones in the image appeared to have wingspans of 48-50ft.

The wingspan of an MQ1 Predator A model is 55ft. On this basis it is possible that these are Predator-As, he said. They are certainly not RQ-4A Global Hawks (which have a wingspan of 116ft 2in).

Pakistan’s only drones are Italian Galileo Falcos, which were delivered in 2007, according to a report in last month’s Jane’s World Air Forces.

A military spokesman at the US Embassy in Islamabad declined to comment on the images or the revelations in The Times yesterday.

Major-General Athar Abbas, Pakistan’s chief military spokesman, was not immediately available for comment. He admitted on Tuesday that US forces were using Shamsi, but only for logistics.

He also said that the Americans were using another air base in the city of Jacobabad for logistics and military operations. Pakistan gave the US permission to use Shamsi, Jacobabad and two other bases Pasni and Dalbadin for the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001.

The image of the US drones at Shamsi highlights the extraordinary power and potential security risks of Google Earth.

Several governments have asked it to remove or blur images of sensitive locations such as military bases, nuclear reactors and government buildings. Some have also accused the company of helping terrorists, as in 2007, when its images of British military bases were found in the homes of Iraqi insurgents.

Last year India said that the militants who attacked Mumbai in November had used Google Earth to familiarize themselves with their targets. Google Street View, which offers ground-level, 360-degree views, also ran into controversy last year when the Pentagon asked it to remove some online images of military bases in America.