Top-Secret Electronic Tracking Unit Rejoins Hunt

Top-Secret Electronic Tracking Unit Rejoins Hunt
Posted by FoM on November 13, 2000 at 15:08:50 PT
Chapter Two of a continuing serial
Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
By walking out of prison in July of 1992, Pablo Escobar had done his enemies a favor. He had gone from prisoner to prey. Morris D. Busby, the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, knew this opportunity would not last long. If Escobar was not apprehended quickly, before he had a chance to securely set himself up as a fugitive, the search might drag on for months or years.
Escobar had spent a lifetime building criminal associations. His wealth and his reputation for violence ensured loyalty where his popularity did not. Ensconced in his home city of Medellin, he was king of the mountain. He would be free to resume and refine the web of drug trafficking, assassinations, terror bombings, bribery and intimidation that had made him the world's most notorious outlaw.Busby wanted Escobar now, while he was still on the run - and at a moment when the Colombian government, after years of hesitation, had finally issued the Americans an unequivocal invitation to do whatever it could to track Escobar down. The ambassador had served as State Department coordinator for counterterrorism, so he knew all the secret tools in the U.S. arsenal. And he knew exactly what he wanted: He put out a call for Maj. Steve Jacoby.For the previous three years, Jacoby had secretly worked from a locked-down section on the windowless fifth floor of the bunkerlike U.S. Embassy in Bogota, where few people beyond the ambassador and the CIA station chief knew exactly who he was or what he did. In fact, Steve Jacoby wasn't even his real name. It was one of four identities he could assume at any moment, each supported by passports and credit cards. Changing into each one was like slipping on a new pair of shoes.Jacoby ran a covert operation for one of the most classified units in the U.S. Army, a highly specialized cadre of communications experts that had gone by a variety of cover names over the years. It had been called Torn Victory, Cemetery Wind, Capacity Gear and Robin Court. Lately, it was "Centra Spike."Until Escobar settled into his luxury prison suite outside Medellin in 1991, Jacoby and his handpicked operatives had spent much of their time secretly tracking the drug lord, his cronies and his rivals.Escobar's sweetheart deal with the Colombian government had been a disappointing end to that chase and, with the elusive drug boss in prison, their mission had been throttled back. Jacoby had used the slack time to pull some of his men and equipment out of Colombia. Marriages and machines were in need of repair.Jacoby was a career soldier and a new kind of spy. With the end of the Cold War, a profusion of small-scale, specialized American military operations were being launched in exotic places by small units of unconventional soldiers dispatched on short notice. America's newest enemies were not only regional powers and dictators and their armies, but also terrorists, crime bosses and drug traffickers.Military commanders who once focused on enemy troop maneuvers and missile throw weights now also needed more timely, localized and specific information: How many doors and windows does the target building have? What kind of weapons do the bodyguards carry? Where does the target eat dinner? Where did he sleep last night, and the night before?Centra Spike had evolved to provide the kind of precise, real-time intelligence that big spy outfits like the CIA were not designed to collect. Over time, the unit's primary specialty had become finding people.Techniques for eavesdropping on radio and telephone conversations from the air had been perfected during missions over El Salvador. There were other military and spy units that could do it; what distinguished Centra Spike was its accuracy. It was capable of pinpointing the origin of a call within seconds.The unit had advanced far beyond the primitive days of World War II, when ground-based antennas could do little more than determine the general vicinity of a radio signal. By the Vietnam War, army direction-finders had perfected techniques for quickly locating a radio signal to within a half-mile of its origin. By the '80s, when Jacoby joined a precursor of Centra Spike, that capability had been reduced to a few hundred meters.Instead of triangulating from three receivers on the ground, the unit did it from one small airplane. Airborne equipment took readings from different points along a plane's flight path. When a signal was intercepted, the pilot would fly an arc around it. With on-board computers providing instantaneous calculations, operators could begin triangulating off points in that arc within seconds. If the plane had time to complete a half circle around the signal, its origin could be narrowed to under 100 meters.The system was ideal for tracking a man like Escobar, who moved from hideout to hideout, communicating by cell phone and radio. While a radio or phone signal could be encrypted, there was no way to disguise its origin. And the system worked in any kind of weather or terrain.The presence of such sophisticated military spying equipment targeted at foreign citizens was legal. A National Security Decision Directive signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986 declared the flow of drugs across U.S. borders a national security threat and authorized the use of American military forces against foreign drug traffickers. A similar classified directive signed by President George Bush in 1988 authorized the U.S. military to arrest foreign nationals and bring them to the United States for trial.So Centra Spike was officially approved. It was also highly classified. The unit's operators and equipment had been slipped into Bogota under the direction of the previous CIA station chief, John Connolly. Colombian officials were informed that the United States, at their invitation, was to begin some fairly sophisticated electronic surveillance, but details about methods or personnel were not provided.The first problem was getting Centra Spike's aircraft into the country without arousing suspicion.Anyone looking for America's most sophisticated eavesdropping equipment would be watching for something high-flying and fancy, with great bulbous features and bristling with antennas. They probably wouldn't be looking for two perfectly ordinary Beechcrafts, an older model 300 and a new model 350.Inside and out, the Beechcrafts looked like standard twin-propeller, six-passenger commercial planes. Such aircraft were common in Colombia, a mountainous country with poor roads. But these Beechcrafts were $50 million spy planes crammed with state-of-the-art electronic eavesdropping and direction-finding equipment.A close examination of either plane would have revealed a wing span about six inches longer than the normal models - to accommodate the two main eavesdropping antennas built inside. Five more antennas could be lowered from the plane's belly in flight.In the cockpit was more instrumentation than in a 747. Once the planes had reached altitudes of 20,000 to 25,000 feet, operators switched on laptop computers plugged into the planes' mainframe and power centers. Wearing headsets, the operators could monitor four frequencies simultaneously.The laptops displayed the planes' positions and the estimated positions of signals being tracked. Because the planes flew so high, no one on the ground could see or hear them. It was an extraordinary capability, particularly useful because it was unknown to even the most sophisticated telecommunications experts - the kind of people drug lords hired to advise them on ways to avoid detection.To help explain why the Beechcrafts were in Colombia, the CIA set up a dummy corporation called Falcon Aviation. The company was said to be conducting an aviation safety project, a survey of Colombia's VOR (VHF Omnidirectional Range) beacons. These are transmitters at all airports to help pilots locate runways. The project gave Centra Spike's pilots a plausible reason to fly just about anywhere in the country in pursuit of Escobar and other drug traffickers. There were only a few dozen VOR beacons in Colombia, so anyone familiar with the country's aviation infrastructure would know that such work would only take a few weeks. But no one ever questioned the mundane little Beechcrafts.This ability to track and tail Escobar had been at Busby's disposal for nearly three years. Now, with Escobar back on the loose, Colombian President Cesar Gaviria was giving the Americans carte blanche to use it.Joe Toft, the gun-toting DEA chief in Bogota, understood just how different the game had become. In a cable to Washington, Toft wrote that Escobar "has placed himself in a very precarious position." He offered a prediction: "Escobar's gall and bravado may lead to his ultimate downfall."Complete Title: A Top-Secret Electronic Tracking Unit Rejoins The HuntBy Mark Bowden, Inquirer Staff WriterMark Bowden's e-mail address is: mbowden phillynews.comSource: Inquirer (PA)Author: Mark Bowden, Inquirer Staff WriterPublished: Saturday November 13, 2000Copyright: 2000 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.Address: 400 N. Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA 19101Contact: Inquirer.Letters phillynews.comWebsite: Articles & Web Site:Killing Pablo's Rise To Power Deadly Manhunt Guided by The U.S. Implicated in Deal With Terrorists 
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Comment #1 posted by Cryptorex on May 11, 2001 at 14:55:07 PT:
Disguising a signals origin
Hi Pablophiles,The comment above, "while a signal may be encrypted, there is no way of disguising it's origin", is not strictly true. One of the biggest issues in designing the Emergency Broadcast Systems during the cold war was to prevent the signal being used as a pilot beam for ballistic missiles and strategic bombers to home in on for targetting. The solution was to use numerous widely spaced antennas and to instantaneously switch the signal emmission randomly from antenna to antenna (Ref: CONELRAD). Another excellent technique, is "low power(IE: sub-noise) Spread Spectrum transmission which if properly designed is extremely difficult to detect. I suspect that Pablo was poorly served by his technical advisors who allowed him to use conventional Cell Phone and or Radio communications. MANY commanders have been killed by their radio.SIC TRANSIT GLORIA MUNDI
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