In space, no one can hear you say “WTF?”

If you’re anything like George Clooney, you lounge around on your yacht off the coast of Italy thinking up ways to save Africa.

What ideas does a respected Africanist like Clooney come up with, you ask? More Bono, perhaps? More used sneakers? More of Bono’s used sneakers?

Nay, it is the twinkle of sunlight off a photographer’s telephoto lens that holds the answer.

Clooney is launching an “anti-genocide paparazzi” service. Using commercial satellites in low-earth orbit, Clooney’s project will monitor the border between northern and southern Sudan for any signs of impending civil war, mass atrocities, or genocide. You know, the usual. Compared to what photos of a Miley Cyrus nipple slip will cost you, atrocity porn is downright cheap at $70,000 per shot.

Two nipples for free!

Clooney has big plans for this do-gooder paparazzi. After saving southern Sudan, he envisions it being used in other hotspots around the world.

“This is as if this were 1943 and we had a camera inside Auschwitz and we said, ‘O.K., if you guys don’t want to do anything about it, that’s one thing,'” Clooney says. “But you can’t say you did not know.”

Unfortunately for Clooney, the science doesn’t really back him up.

The best images from these satellites display about 8 sq. in. (50 sq cm) of the ground in each pixel on a computer screen. That is not enough granularity to read a car’s license plate or ID a person, but analysts can tell the difference between cars and trucks and track the movements of troops or horses.

Indeed, these satellites won’t catch any slipped nipples or baby bumps. In an interview with Clooney about the satellite project, Jake Tapper asked, “Will the world watching make a difference?”

The world only watches when royals or Justin Bieber are involved.

In 2007, Amnesty International and the American Association for the Advancement of Science launched “Eyes on Darfur,” a satellite project that monitored developments on the ground in Darfur. As you’ll recall, mere months later, Darfur was saved after millions of people updated their Facebook statuses with a link to blurry photos of sand.

The main idea behind Clooney’s Satellite Sentinel Project is, “If you know your actions are going to be covered, you tend to behave much differently than when you operate in a vacuum.” It’s about accountability.

Accountability for human rights violations are important, but satellites are not the best way to monitor which actors are at fault. Even Anonymous NGO security reports about drunken grenade brawls are more exciting than eight inches of sand turned into a pixel. Clooney getting into a fistfight in Juba is far more likely to make headlines at TMZ than his satellites capturing troop movements around Abyei.

As an advocacy tool to rally public opinion, satellites are about as useful as a non-combat littoral combat ship. As a deterrent to committing atrocities, satellites are about as useful as the threat of an ICC indictment.

If Clooney really wants to identify who is doing what and when—and if he wants to continue dredging up ideas from the annals of genocide prevention projects past—he should consider investing in some UAVs. What could go wrong?

At the very least, whatever hot genocidaire-on-cattle action the Clooney UAVs capture on video is sure to raise alarms among the activist community. Even if those activists are just PETA. Beggars can’t be choosers.


20 thoughts on “In space, no one can hear you say “WTF?”

  1. Just for the sake of throwing it out there, the US military had pictures of the Auschwitz-Birkenau and the train tracks leading there and, as Clooney seems to imagine, did nothing (didn’t even look at the pictures much, really). Also, we had pictures from inside Belzec, a death camp that worked more “efficiently” than Birkenau, that were smuggled out of the camp by Polish diplomat-in-exile Jan Karski and shown to, among others, Felix Frankfurter, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. For “And then we did what?” see, “Nothing.”

    But for damn good books about these things, see Karski’s memoir “Story of Secret State” (or the bio by … Wood, forget his first name right off, which is easier to find), “The Abandonment of the Jews” by David Wyman (for a good start, and also for a discussion of the small and unsuccessful movement among American Jews to respond to Nazi atrocities, which had some big rallies but didn’t get anywhere). For a long time the “Why didn’t we bomb Auschwitz” question was a rhetorical moralism; then it got serious scholarship, and there’s lots to be read on it.

    Although Clooney’s serendipitously right to speak of 1943: The photos I’m talking about weren’t taken until 1944.

  2. To play devil’s (or Clooney’s) advocate…

    Yes, satellite imagery is not a panacea. But it’s not bad either. I don’t remember the details, but hasn’t satellite imagery been useful in the past? I think it was used in Guatemala to identify mass graves, which were then analyzed by forensic anthropologists and human rights experts to figure out what went on. I’m guessing it’s been used elsewhere as well.

    And no, it most likely probably won’t make us more likely to intervene to prevent something from happen. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing to have. Yes, they’re overstating their case, but so what?

    If celebrities want to be involved, I’d rather have them doing stuff like this – that could conceivably be useful, even if that’s not extremely likely – that mindlessly blabbering. Just because a celebrity does it doesn’t make it wrong, but that seems to be the default response by much of the aid/development blogosphere.

  3. Just throwing this thought to the wind. Is there a possibility that Americans are still a bit sensitive (for lack of a better word) to the use of satellite images to elicit action? Maybe it has been enough time since Iraq, but I am curious to see if there will be a measure of skepticism after many were duped thanks to satellite images.

    Along this kind of thinking, it would not be hard for Bashir to then question the validity of the images and the motives of Americans. I am not sure what will happen if the images catch activity, but I am a skeptic at heart.

  4. Hmm, Brett — you remind me, is it satellite pictures that first tipped David Rohde off to Srebrenica? And another thing you make me think about — the moments we’ve raised here are moments satellite imagery told us something (whether we listened or not). But the imagery is a secondary point here to the idea of letting someone know we’re watching, the effect of which will at least be different than those other examples…

  5. all the information in the world will never be enough if there is not the political will to take action. 1994. romeo dallaire. rwanda. un security council. shake hands with the devil.

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  7. It’s such a great way for the United States government to monitor the oil fields in Central Africa and keep an eye on what the Chinese are doing there. Kudos to George Clooney for becoming a propaganda tool to ensure American economic supremecy in the world. USA! USA! USA!

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  11. Others could respond better but I’ll try to do my small part in the face of such yawn-inducing cynicism.

    “Nay, it is the twinkle of sunlight off a photographer’s telephoto lens that holds the answer.”

    Yes, sometimes it is. Like the photos of vultures waiting for children to die in Biafra that helped spark a massive aid intervention (regardless of how you feel about the impact of such aid), or the satellite images that helped lead the US into the Iraq war. Such evidence can be a powerful component of arguments for good or bad policy. It’s not trivial.

    You claim fuzzily that the science doesn’t back him up, but offer no logic for why. High resolution satellite imagery only does what it claims to do- capture a landscape at a precise moment in time. By comparing two moments, you can often detect changes to the landscape. Which means you can see troop buildup, new artillery emplacements, a bulldozer covering a mass grave, additional trucks carrying soldiers. It’s a well established science within environmental circles, and obviously government ones. Not sure what the issue is here- if military buildup is occurring during referendum voting, might it be worth the press making hay of it?

    “Accountability for human rights violations are important, but satellites are not the best way to monitor which actors are at fault.”

    It doesn’t try to. It establishes facts of physical change to the landscape, leaving the blame game to the experts and politicians. Is there a direct causal link from satellite monitoring to government policy change in Sudan? Probably not. It is simply another tool to cast light in places governments would rather keep out of public view, and create evidence that might be used to as a pressure point.

    Apart from the tired tropes about celebrity engagement (we GET it), the real question you seem to so easily, and dangerously, dismiss is the value of having such evidence, once only available to government intelligence analysts, instantly available far and wide to citizens.

    You casually dismiss any potential impact such public knowledge might have on the actions of the government in Khartoum, Juba – or, yes, might have had on public or military opinion on Auschwitz.

    It makes a difference that people are watching. Is it enough to prevent or stop war? Don’t know. Has Clooney’s involvement demonstrably increased the number of people paying attention to what’s happening in Abyei region itself, and by extension shifted, ever so slightly, the cost calculus of leaders to restart conflict? Maybe.

    I believe we should support every new method possible to shine a light in places at risk that governments think is safely out of the public view, and support celebrities like Clooney who leave their yachts to try to hold GoS feet to the fire by helping the global public monitor the situation in new ways. I’ll take his engagement over knee-jerk snark any day of the week.

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