2011-01-20 Cablegate: Ireland and US predator drones

State department cable reveals possible use of Irish IT infrastructure to pilot unmanned drones in Afghanistan. A recent article in Phoenix Magazine (behind paywall) conjectures that undersea fibre-optic cables channeled through sites in Ireland, revealed in Wikileaks release of 09STATE15113, are in fact part of the U.S. military infrastructure for piloting Predator Drones in Afghanistan from a military base in Nevada. If true, this could be illegal under Irish constitutional commitments to neutrality.

US Predator Drone

The 09STATE15113 cable was widely discussed in the media, after a former British Defence and Foreign Secretary and chairman of the Commons Intelligence and Security Committee suggested that its publication by Wikileaks might pose a significant threat to U.S. and British national security. These claims were addressed by WL Central, here. The cable itself is an inventory released by the State Department documenting U.S. infrastructural and strategic assets listed under the Department of Homeland Security's National Infrastructure Protection Programme (NIPP).

The cable, signed by Hillary Clinton, proclaims that "[t]he overarching goal of the NIPP is to build a safer, more secure, and more resilient America by enhancing protection of the nation's [Critical Infrastructure]/[Key Resources] to prevent, deter, neutralize or mitigate the effects of deliberate efforts by terrorists to destroy, incapacitate or exploit them; and to strengthen national preparedness, timely response, and rapid recovery in the event of an attack, natural disaster or other emergency." A scan of the inventory of critical infrastructure, however, reveals that the entire world is peppered with sites designated critical to American security. For instance, the three Irish sites listed include a building in an industrial estate on Dublin's north side, owned by Hibernia Atlantic. Hibernia Atlantic was unavailable for comment to the press after the release of the cable:


Ireland: Hibernia Atlantic undersea cable landing, Dublin
Ireland Genzyme Ireland Ltd. (filling), Waterford,
Ireland: Thymoglobulin,

The Phoenix article draws attention to the Hibernia site, pointing out that it ought to be a curiosity to Irish Military Intelligence why it is designated in this way by the American government.


HOPEFULLY, Irish Military Intelligence (G2) has worked out by now why an anonymous building in a Coolock industrual estate is of such importance to the US that it features in the top secret National Infrastructure Protection Plan (NIPP) - published worldwide by Wikileaks. The NIPP lists include the Hibernia Atlantic Cable Network Operations Centre (NOC) at Clonshaugh, Dublin 17.

The Phoenix author goes on to suggest that the U.S. government has paid for the use of the transatlantic undersea fibre-optic cable, in order to facilitate its deployment of unmanned Predator drones in Central Asia.

The General Atomics MQ-1 "Predator" drone is an unmanned forward reconnaissance aircraft, which has been adapted for combat operations, and fitted with Hellfire missiles. It is one of an array of unmanned aircraft used by the United States military. A second, more secret Predator programme is run by the C.I.A. in covert targeted strikes. They have to date been deployed in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Yemen.

The use of Predator drones has been criticized even internally within the U.S. military, on account of their role in a number of events with high civilian deaths. A United Nations report raised concerns over whether the use of Predator drones violates international law.

The Predator has nonetheless been the focus of many PR spots on news networks, and has been celebrated in military technology documentaries as a staple of the 21st century American war effort. These often depict Predator drones in Central Asia being flown by satellite link from offices in a military base in Nevada. The Phoenix author makes the argument that the latency on satellite connections is too high for the Predator programme, and that the US military must instead use fibre-optic links to pilot the aircraft.


In all these reports emphasis was placed on the use of earth satellites to control the killer drones... This secret media spin - that Predators are controlled in their Afghan area of operations through earth satellite links - is a fib aimed at securing the earth-based high speed links like Hibernian Atlantic from attack by jihadists.

Satellite links have one big draw back: they are far out in space (22,000 miles for some) and the speed with which they can transfer data is considerably slower than land-based and under-ocean fibre optic cables. Data takes 500 milliseconds to travel by satellite. But with Hibernian Atlantic's Dublin connection it takes 60 milliseconds to cross the ocean. The effect is called latency: the Coolock connection has low latency, a Nevada-Afghan satellite link has high latency.

An earth based system, of course, is more vulnerable to physical attack. A Holy Warrior who arrived at Sutton (where the Hibernian Atlantic cable comes ashore and from whences its east-bound companion heads to Southport and thence the Middle East) could do untold damage to the Predator campaign in Afghanistan, with little more than a spade and a hatchet. It is this, rather than considerations about Irish neutrality, which is the reason for the Dublin 17 centre being on that top secret list of vital facilities. But now the cat is out of the bag. No wonder the Yanks are so cross with Julian Assange. And no wonder the responsible Irish media has failed to follow up with investigation and publication of yet another example of Irish involvement in Uncle Sam's military exploits.

The possibility that Hibernia Atlantic is a conduit for Predator drone strikes raises a very new slant on a traditional Irish legal problem: what constitutes a breach of Irish constitutional commitments to neutrality. The Irish constitution, ratified during Ireland's neutrality in the Second World War, contains unusually strong restrictions on the participation in international conflicts, and various ancillary statutes build on this provision.

This issue has been the subject of significant legal activism over the history of the state, in recent years most visibly demonstrated in Horgan v. An Taoiseach, a High Court case in which an ex-soldier took a case against the Prime Minister of Ireland. The grounds for this case were that the allowance of the transmission of supplies and troops through Shannon airport, and the use of Irish airspace in U.S. flights to the Middle East and Central Asia as part of the "War on Terror" violated Irish neutrality, and were therefore unconstitutional. Some background for this case is given on WL Central here.

The idea that information infrastructure going through Irish territory, and using an Irish company, might be directly instrumental in the remote conduct of a war in Asia has analogies with the use of Irish airspace, and raises new questions over whether Irish neutrality is being breached.

However, the argument in Phoenix Magazine is hardly conclusive, and appears to assume that all assets listed in the NIPP list in 09STATE15113 are military assets, as opposed to assets important to American interests by more indirect means. 09STATE15113 does not appear to justify this assumption, and leaves open the possibility that a high capacity transatlantic fibre-optic cable might be important to U.S. strategic interests purely because its destruction would have a deleterious effect on certain U.S. industries, and thereby, on the national economy:


¶3. (U//FOUO) In addition to a list of critical domestic CI/KR, the NIPP requires compilation and annual update of a comprehensive inventory of CI/KR that are located outside U.S. borders and whose loss could critically impact the public health, economic security, and/or national and homeland security of the United States. DHS in collaboration with State developed the Critical Foreign Dependencies Initiative (CFDI)to identify these critical U.S. foreign dependencies -- foreign CI/KR that may affect systems within the U.S. directly or indirectly. State is coordinating with DHS to develop the 2009 inventory, and the action request in Para. 13 represents the initial step in this process.

¶4. (U//FOUO) The NIPP does not define CI/KR. Homeland Security Presidential Directive 7 (HSPD 7) references definitions in two separate statutes. In the USA Patriot Act of 2001 (42 U.S.C. 5195(e)) "critical infrastructure" is defined as systems and assets, whether physical or virtual, so vital to the United States the incapacitation or destruction of such systems and assets would have a debilitating impact on security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination of those matters. In the Homeland Security Act of 2002 (6 U.S.C. 101(9)) "key resources" are defined as publicly or privately controlled resources essential to the minimal operations of the economy and government.

¶5. (U//FOUO) The NIPP identifies 18 CI/KR sectors: agriculture and food; defense industrial base; energy; healthcare and public health; national monuments and icons; banking and finance; drinking water and water treatment systems; chemical; commercial facilities; dams; emergency services; commercial nuclear reactors, materials, and waste; information technology; communications; postal and shipping; transportation and systems; government facilities; and critical manufacturing. Obviously some of these sectors are more likely to have international components than other sectors.
Building upon the initial survey completed in 2008, Department requests each post reassess and update information about infrastructure and resources in each host country whose loss could immediately affect the public health, economic security, and/or national and homeland security of the United States.

It remains to be seen whether the possibilities raised by the Phoenix magazine have any correspondence with the facts. 899 diplomatic cables from the Dublin embassy have yet to be released by Wikileaks. Of the eleven that have been released at the time of this post, three have cast new and possibly incriminating light on the Shannon airport case, as has been explored by WL Central here. The prospect that they may cast light on the designation of Irish sites in the NIPP can not be ruled out.

Update: The Phoenix Magazine article is republished here.

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