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Guest Blogger, Peter J. Brown: Satellite Dishes are Chattering Away in Pakistan

Peter J. Brown is a Maine-based freelance writer who has specialized in satellite technology for more than two decades. He is a former senior multimedia editor for “Via Satellite” magazine. His articles about the TV industry’s migration to digital technology and various satellite newsgathering applications appeared in “Broadcasting & Cable” and “TV Technology” magazines, too. He has written about the role of satellites in major disasters for “Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness”, a journal of the American Medical Association, among other publications. His coverage of Asian-related satellite developments has appeared in “Asia Times Online” as well as “Japan Security Watch”.

The satellite dimension of the entire Bin Laden affair is complex indeed, and the analysis of same is ongoing. This involves much more than the role of the real-time satellite surveillance and communications in the overall command and control of the U.S. raid on the Bin Laden compound which included multiple live feeds back to the White House and the Pentagon.

With more emphasis now being placed on the Bin Laden compound as a command center, the earlier placement of satellite downlinks within the compound itself takes on added importance, especially since the release of a video showing Bin Laden watching satellite TV.

Regarding the actual satellite dishes installed there, early press reports by Reuters and others mentioned a single satellite dish because the big dish could clearly spotted, and the smaller one(s) were missed entirely. Many overhead photos of the compound omit the smaller one(s) as well.

Later, the satellite dish profile of this compound was changed. For example, two dishes can be seen here .

Notice the intentional fudging when it comes to the actual number of dishes present. This writer is proceeding on the basis that only two dishes were installed there, but there are reports that suggest that more were in place. While these might all be receive – only devices, the smaller dish(es) might well be two-way Internet capable and perhaps even satellite phone-capable model(s). Until we know more for sure, the fact that the much smaller one(s) may have been purposefully concealed in particular should not be overlooked.

Keep in mind that in the past few days, Pakistani authorities took steps to suspend satellite uplinking activities by several foreign news organizations. Here is an excerpt from a news article published in The Express Tribune, May 8th, 2011 –

“After issuing show-cause notices, Pemra (Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority) suspended uplink facility of Fox News, NBC News, CNN, CNS, IBN, BBC, Al Jazeera, Voice of America and Sky News for violating Section 31 of the Pemra Act of 2007.

“According to the Section 31 of the act, no satellite uplink could be established “without a valid teleport or satellite TV licence from the authority (Pemra); The authority may…issue permission in writing to any party to carry out temporary uplinking (facility) from a ground transmission facility to a satellite…to transmit any programme within or outside Pakistan.” “The immediate suspension of signals of these international news channels has been made to preserve Pemra rules,” said (Information Minister Firdous Aashiq Awan).

“They were violating Pemra rules, so we suspended their transmissions after conducting internal inquiries against them,” she added. These channels, Awan said, had been asked to submit explanations of their inappropriate behaviour within a few days. Pemra issues temporary uplinking permission for live coverage from Pakistan for a specific event and time. (See full article at – suspended/ on 8 May 2011)

We mention this crackdown because it raises the question as to whether or not two-way satellite equipment in place in the compound was licensed or not – that is, if any two-way satellite equipment was actually in place in the compound.

This discussion is also relevant given that the spotlight is now shining on the CIA’s prolonged surveillance operations from a fixed location nearby the Bin Laden compound. Here again, Pakistan may be wondering it its rules and regulations concerning satellite uplinks might have been violated. Or perhaps the sustained use of covert satellite uplinks by U.S. agents operating inside Pakistan is not something that concerns the Pakistani government at all due to some prior agreement with the U.S.

The idea that covert uplinks might be disguised to look like satellite TV reception equipment should not come as a surprise.

And what has happened to this equipment now? Is it still there? Has any of this satellite equipment mysteriously disappeared? After all, it is not unusual for satellite equipment to be seized as part of an investigation. For example, this was the case during a raid of one apartment in a suburb of Toronto. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police arrived there shortly after 9/11 and officers could be observed in plain sight as they removed satellite gear from the balcony according to one reporter at the scene. The RCMP subsequently said nothing about this equipment.

Another possibility to keep in mind is that perhaps the big dish in the Bin Laden compound was used to signal others outside the compound not via electronic means or via satellite, but simply by pointing the dish in a particular direction or elevating it to a certain angle.  This has happened before, too.

In terms of these and other issues, there is much to digest in terms of what all these satellite dishes in Pakistan are telling us both from a legal standpoint as well as from an operational perspective.