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.

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