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Tuesday Map: How not to find Syrian nukes with Google Earth

Many folks have commented on this sensational story in Sunday’s London Times, which describes in great detail a daring Israeli raid on a secret Syrian nuclear facility. I have more questions than answers at this point, but I remain very skeptical. Others have already poured cold water on the story, but Mark Mazzetti and Helene ...

599277_090719_almayadin_05.jpg

Many folks have commented on this sensational story in Sunday’s London Times, which describes in great detail a daring Israeli raid on a secret Syrian nuclear facility. I have more questions than answers at this point, but I remain very skeptical. Others have already poured cold water on the story, but Mark Mazzetti and Helene Cooper of the New York Times reported Tuesday—very carefully, you might observe—that some American officials apparently believe that Israeli jets attacked “a site that Israel believed to be associated with a rudimentary Syrian nuclear program.” As Mazzetti and Cooper note, the sudden postponement of the six-party talks with North Korea remains a mystery, but it could be tied to tensions over this alleged incident.

A few months back, I blogged about a story by Wired‘s Matthew Cole, who reported that Google Earth offers telling hints as to where U.S. intelligence agencies choose to direct satellite resources:

After Google recently updated its satellite images of parts of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, much of the region still looked blotchy — the kind of low resolution that persists in coverage of, say, upstate New York. But several small squares (they stand out as off-color patches from 680 miles up) suddenly became as detailed as the images of Manhattan. These sectors happen to be precisely where the US govern­ment has been hunting for bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Turns out, Google gets its images from many of the same satellite companies — DigitalGlobe, TerraMetrics, and others-that provide reconnaissance to US intelligence agencies. And when the CIA requests close-ups of the area around Peshawar in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province, Google Earth reaps the benefits (although usually six to 18 months later).

Remembering this, I set out to discover if there happened to be any high-resolution images on Google Earth around the area where the Israeli air strikes reportedly took place. The London Times story purported to offer some clues:

An audacious raid on a Syrian target 50 miles from the Iraqi border was under way. […] The target was identified as a northern Syrian facility that purported to be an agricultural research centre on the Euphrates river.

Following this description takes you to al-Mayadin, a Syrian town along the Euphrates river and roughly 50 miles from the Iraqi border. Here’s what the area looks like on Google Earth:

There are a couple things to note about the above image. One, it certainly doesn’t look like the green banks of the Euphrates are desert, though CNN quoted “sources in the region and the United States” as saying that the air strikes “left a big hole in the desert.” Two, the image is not, you may have noticed, very high resolution. (Nor are the areas around it, in case you’re wondering.) Contrast blurry al-Mayadin and environs with this shot of Natanz, Iran’s once-secret uranium processing facility:

If U.S. intelligence agencies had suspected nuclear activities near al-Mayadin, Cole’s reporting suggests that we’d see high-res pictures in Google Earth. But that does not appear to be the case. I can think of several possible explanations:

  • I made a mistake.
  • Cole is wrong about Google Earth and satellite reconnaissance, or he’s right about Pakistan but the formula doesn’t apply elsewhere.
  • U.S. intelligence agencies have been looking around al-Mayadin, but Google Earth hasn’t gotten the hand-me-down imagery yet.
  • Israeli intelligence on Syria’s nuclear program is better than U.S. intelligence.
  • The Israelis made a mistake.
  • The London Times story is somehow wrong or false.

What do you think?

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