Did ViaSat Network Carry Live Feed of Commando Raid on Osama bin Laden?

In an interview on the PBS News Hour last night, CIA Director Leon Panetta describes the U.S. raid on the Pakistan compound where Osama bin Laden was killed—saying that neither he nor President Obama watched the actual shooting of bin Laden as it happened inside the main building.

Yet both were apparently watching a live video feed of the attack while it was underway—a capability that reminds me of a chilling scene in the 1992 movie “Patriot Games,” where CIA analyst Jack Ryan (played by actor Harrison Ford) watches via satellite from a darkened control room as commandos raid a desert terrorist camp in the Middle East.

In a May 1 photo released by the White House, President Obama and his national security team appear to be watching something in the White House situation room—Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s hand covers her mouth in a gesture of amazement—but the caption says only that the leaders are receiving an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden.

Meanwhile, in Plymouth, England, ZDNet UK editor Rupert Goodwins speculates that the system used to transmit the feed “was almost certainly the ArcLight mobile broadband system” from Carlsbad, CA-based ViaSat. ViaSat said almost three years ago that it had delivered a militarized, secure version of its “Communications On The Move” technology to the American Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) with additional deliveries expected throughout the U.S. military.

Obviously, a great deal of security has been built into the system, but Goodwins says the technology is not really that different from making a video Skype call with someone in Europe or Asia.

A statement from ViaSat in 2008 says the technology can be easily added to military aircraft equipped with an Air Force-certified hatch-mount terminal. It provides secure access to Department of Defense wide area networks while airborne at raw data rates of up to 512 kbps outbound.  ViaSat says the technology is built around its ArcLight commercial mobile broadband communications satellite network for private business jets and maritime applications operated by ViaSat and SES Americom Government Services.

In an e-mail this morning, ViaSat spokesman Bruce Rowe says it’s unlikely the company would confirm that its system was used to carry the live feed. “There is a great deal of speculation by the reporter in those stories,” Rowe writes. “He just made an educated guess based on our public releases.”

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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