Hi-tech system to track U.S. staff on risky tours

July 17, 2011

The State Department is installing advanced, classified security systems in Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen to monitor staff movements in those countries where moving among local populations remains dangerous, according to department budget and contract documents.

The Blue Force Tracker system uses a small transmitter mounted on a vehicle, an aircraft or an individual that sends continuous signals to a Global Positioning System satellite and back to a computer in a secure command post. The command post computer shows precise locations within a 10-foot radius of tracked individuals, vehicles or aircraft on ever-changing map displays.

“This critical technology provides department personnel with the confidence to travel into highly dangerous areas, knowing there is an over-watch and a reaction capability to help them at the push of a button,” according to a State Department fiscal 2012 budget document presented to Congress. About $9.4 million was being sought to support the tracking system in Iraq next year.

No State Department official would discuss the systems on the record. A department spokesman, speaking on the condition of anonymity because security issues were involved, said last week: “The State Department uses all available options, including technology, to ensure the safety of our personnel. For reasons of operational security, we do not comment on what technologies the department employs, nor in which countries these technologies may be used.”

Four highly secure modular metal buildings are being built in Louisiana under a $23.1 million non-bid contract. When shipped to Iraq, they are to become the temporary operation centers holding Blue Force Tracker systems for two new embassy branches in Mosul and Kirkuk and two other facilities in Baghdad.

The new system will have “three-dimensional geospatial imagery and the ability to rapidly overlay analytic information onto maps,” say State Department budget documents. It also will allow the receipt of one-way messages, including distress calls, according to Thermopylae Sciences and Technology (TST), an Arlington-based company that helped develop the system for the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service.

The TST system also allows users to “create and manage intelligence reports or incident reports and easily import and export this information,” which permits “data-driven route analysis, threat assessments, trend analysis and intelligence summaries,” the firm says.

In addition, a $15 million classified facility to hold the tracking system is being assembled on the U.S. Embassy grounds in Islamabad, Pakistan. An advertisement posted in June by Olgoonik Development seeks a security specialist to work there for the Blue Force Tracker program.

The Pakistan system is “designed to maximize visualization of designated assets traveling and conducting operations in hostile or hazardous areas,” according to the advertisement. One job of the specialist is to “track and report all off-compound embassy travelers to the [State Department] regional security officer . . . using the BFT-ONE [Blue Force Tracker] system.”

Similar Olgoonik advertisements sought security specialists to work on Blue Force Tracker systems being put in Yemen and Afghanistan. Each of the Ol­goonik ads said the prospective hires must be U.S. citizens, have top-secret security clearances and be able to qualify for sensitive compartmented information, the category that applies to electronically intercepted intelligence.

While the Diplomatic Security Service has used the Blue Force Tracker in Iraq for six years to monitor vehicles carrying Foreign Service and other personnel, its primary purpose was to document activities of contract security guards. A 2008 report to top State Department officials, in the wake of Blackwater guards shooting several Iraqi civilians between 2005 and 2007, talked of video recording devices being installed in vehicles and the retention of tracker data.

The trackers then, according to the report, “combined with reporting requirements and established operational procedures allow for COM [chief of mission] motorcades to be monitored and held accountable.”

In contrast, the State Department’s fiscal 2012 budget document calls the system “critical to the life safety of COM personnel by allowing the security officer to monitor their location within three meters [10 feet] and respond to any incident with pinpoint accuracy.”

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