Bearing Witness

Endangered villages in Darfur are protected by powerful, and relatively inexpensive, intelligence.

From above, Malam al Hosh in North Darfur looks almost indistinguishable from the vast, seemingly desolate terrain surrounding it. Satellite images reveal formations that, at first, appear to be outcroppings of boulders. But look closer and you see footpaths. To the west, a dark impression blots the ground like an ink stain. The images start to register: Those are houses. That's a well. The village of Malam comes into sharper focus, and you can sense the fragility of this tiny outpost.

And that's the point. The satellite photos of Malam are part of an online collection called Eyes on Darfur, run by Amnesty International, the not-for-profit human rights group. In June, it posted images of 12 villages vulnerable to attack in the ongoing war and genocide in Darfur that were purchased from a commercial satellite provider. The result is a richly detailed resource that has given a nongovernmental organization a powerful policy lever-which is precisely what good intelligence is supposed to do.

"I wouldn't presume we're giving intelligence that the [U.S.] government is not aware of," says Ariela Blätter, the director of Amnesty's Crisis Prevention and Response Center. "But in terms of intelligence with an advocacy angle, I think that may be something new. . . . We will be protecting these villages. We will be deterring attacks. And in the event that they are attacked, we will document those atrocities."

A few years ago, Amnesty was looking for a way to obtain highly detailed satellite intelligence as part of its efforts to monitor human rights abuses. Blätter recalled that Roméo Dallaire, the general who commanded the failed United Nations peacekeeping mission in Rwanda, wrote in his memoir that he had asked member nations for imagery during the atrocities of 1994, but they denied his request. With that information, he could have better deployed his forces.

When a conflict has reached a critical stage, Amnesty often is prevented from sending monitors. "When you most crucially need intelligence is when the government imposes this cloak of darkness over our eyes," Blätter says. But a few years ago, the prices for commercial imagery started coming down. Amnesty teamed up with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which had received a grant from the MacArthur Foundation to use imagery for monitoring conflicts. Last year, they released evidence that the government of Zimbabwe had destroyed a settlement and moved out thousands of residents in a campaign against political opponents.

Eyes on Darfur was a natural extension of that work. The interactive intelligence dossier, which one presumes would be useful to governments and policy-makers, lets you zoom in on photographs of the villages, read firsthand accounts from the residents and learn why they're at risk.

Malam, for instance, is a prime grazing area. The Janjaweed militia, on which much of the violence in Darfur is blamed, has seen its animals' migration route severed by the war, so the group has eyes on Malam. "We know they want this area. They want it for their animals," says an engineer named Hilal.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has pushed agencies to use more open-source intelligence as a way of cutting costs and freeing up more sophisticated satellites for other missions. But as satellite resources become cheaper and more accessible, they effectively become a commodity for buyers outside the intelligence community. And that's a dramatic change from a time when governments held dominion over such a valuable tool. "The amount of users that we hope will benefit from this is boundless," Blätter says.

Shane Harris, a staff correspondent for National Journal, wrote about intelligence and technology at Government Executive for five years.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

  • Federal IT Applications: Assessing Government's Core Drivers

    In order to better understand the current state of external and internal-facing agency workplace applications, Government Business Council (GBC) and Riverbed undertook an in-depth research study of federal employees. Overall, survey findings indicate that federal IT applications still face a gamut of challenges with regard to quality, reliability, and performance management.

  • PIV- I And Multifactor Authentication: The Best Defense for Federal Government Contractors

    This white paper explores NIST SP 800-171 and why compliance is critical to federal government contractors, especially those that work with the Department of Defense, as well as how leveraging PIV-I credentialing with multifactor authentication can be used as a defense against cyberattacks

  • Toward A More Innovative Government

    This research study aims to understand how state and local leaders regard their agency’s innovation efforts and what they are doing to overcome the challenges they face in successfully implementing these efforts.

  • From Volume to Value: UK’s NHS Digital Provides U.S. Healthcare Agencies A Roadmap For Value-Based Payment Models

    The U.S. healthcare industry is rapidly moving away from traditional fee-for-service models and towards value-based purchasing that reimburses physicians for quality of care in place of frequency of care.

  • GBC Flash Poll: Is Your Agency Safe?

    Federal leaders weigh in on the state of information security


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.