“And don’t forget I sit on the Intelligence Committee. We deal with the nation’s classified secrets. This is an open-source document. I’m not sharing something I shouldn’t, but China has blinded United States satellites with their lasers.”
— Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Sept. 30
A reader sent us an article about Michele Bachmann’s comments on China during an appearance on Laura Ingraham’s show last week. The headline was “Bachmann: China Attacked US Satellites With Lasers.” That certainly got our attention, though when we actually listened to the quote, it was not quite as dramatic as “attacked.”
Even Michele Bachmann is sometimes misquoted!
Still, the idea that China has “blinded” U.S. satellites is a pretty dramatic charge. Bachmann cited her credibility as a member of the House Select Committee on Intelligence. Is there much truth to this?
Bachmann suggests that this is a recent event, mentioning an “open-source document.” But she seems to be referring to something that appears to have happened in 2006.
On Sept. 28, 2006, Defense News reported that China had recently “fired high-power lasers at U.S. spy satellites flying over its territory in what experts see as a test of Chinese ability to blind the spacecraft.” In the context of satellites, “blinding” specifically refers to causing permanent damage to an imaging satellite’s detector.
But this was an initial, thinly sourced report, and things quickly became more murky. U.S. officials gave conflicting information about what had occurred, but it eventually emerged that one or more satellites might have been “illuminated” by a Chinese laser.
Donald Kerr, director of the Pentagon’s National Reconnaissance Office, said that whatever happened “did not materially damage the U.S. satellite’s ability to collect information,” according to USA Today. Gen. James Cartwright, who was in charge of U.S. military operations in space, said that the United States had not seen clear indications that China intentionally disrupted American satellite capabilities.
“ ‘Blinded’ usually implies lasting damage to a sensor, which would be provocative indeed,” said Laura Grego, senior scientist at the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, who has studied the issue. “‘Dazzled’ usually refers to temporary interference with the ability to see.” But, she said, “the claim in that incident was that China illuminated a satellite, which does not necessarily mean that the sensor was blinded or dazzled. In fact, I thought it was notable that the U.S. did not make that claim.”
Yousaf Butt, a nuclear physicist and currently a scientific consultant to the Federation of American Scientists, said in a 2008 report for the UCS that the Chinese were probably tracking the orbit of the satellites. “In most cases laser ranging would have a low probability of permanent damage to the satellite’s imaging sensor,” he concluded, adding that it “is an ineffective anti-satellite weapon.”
As Grego put it, “There are a number of reasons to illuminate a satellite’s body with a ground-based laser, and while it’s not a friendly thing to do, it’s not illegal and is unlikely to cause any damage if you avoid illuminating the satellite’s sensor.”
She added: “No country has intentionally caused permanent damage to another country’s satellite, at least no such incident is in the public realm, and she is asserting that China has done so. That this Rubicon hasn’t been crossed is very important! This error [by Bachmann] might be less egregious if blinding satellites were something that countries occasionally do to each other, but it isn’t.”
We asked the Bachmann campaign for further information on the “open-source document” she referenced, but, as usual, did not get a response.
The Pinocchio Test
We don’t know what, if any, classified information Bachmann has access to about this incident, but the public record is pretty damning. Bachmann made a provocative charge based on flimsy and outdated evidence, citing her seat on the Intelligence Committee to give it credibility.
Either because Bachmann does not know the difference between “blinded” and “illuminated” — or because she chose to ignore the difference — she made a very misleading claim.