The Complex

Why the Navy’s Black Box Locator Could Be Useless in the Hunt for Missing Flight 370

The U.S. Navy announced plans Monday to move a "black box locator" to Perth, Australia, in case debris from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is found in the southern Indian Ocean. The statement was covered breathlessly, with some media outlets calling it a potential game-changer. But a word of caution: the black box locator faces logistical nightmares that prevented it from being effective in other similar searches in the past. Authorities, in other words, may learn where the flight went down -- but they'll have a harder time finding the device capable of explaining why. 

The high-tech system on the way to Perth is known, in military-speak, as the Towed Pinger Locator 25. Like its predecessors, the system uses a high-powered underwater microphone known as a hydrophone to search for acoustic "pings" coming from beacons mounted on the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder in a downed aircraft. They're commonly known as "black boxes," although they're usually orange. The pinger locator, made by Phoenix International of Largo, Md., is about 30 inches long and weighs 70 pounds. It closely resembles a miniature torpedo, complete with fins, and is pulled on a long underwater cable behind a ship. It can detect pings from up to 20,000 feet under the sea.

Bill Lawson, who oversees the pinger locator program for Phoenix International, said that if the beacons on the downed airline's black boxes are still transmitting, his equipment will find them. Towed pinger locators have found numerous aircraft in the past, including the downed Adam Air Flight 574, which crashed on Jan. 1, 2007, while flying over the Makassar Strait while flying between the Indonesian cities of Surabaya and Manado, killing all 102 people on board. After the Indonesian government government asked the United States for help, the U.S. Navy found it at a depth of between 4,900 and 6,200 feet using a towed pinger locator on the USNS Mary Sears, Navy officials said. The current version was first fielded in 2010. One year later, it managed to find a Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier that crashed in the Gulf of Aden near Oman in 2011 shortly after takeoff, said officials with Phoenix and the Navy.

Even if the locator sent to Perth is used perfectly, however, it is by no means certain that it will be able to do the job. Consider the case of Air France Flight 447. It crashed off the northeast coast of Brazil on June 1, 2009, killing all 216 passengers and 12 air crew members. The U.S. Navy provided two pinger locators by Phoenix International, but they were towed through the search area for about 30 days without any success. At that point, the first phase of the search was called off because the battery life on the black box transponders was all but certainly dead. It took another two years for the recorders to be recovered, and it occurred only after the bulk of the wreckage was found by robot submarines in April 2011.

"They found that the pingers were damaged and unoperational," Lawson said -- meaning the Navy's black box locator wouldn't have worked.

Malaysian authorities said Monday that they now believe Flight 370 crashed in the Indian Ocean southwest of Perth. The massive Boeing 777 disappeared March 8 with 227 passengers and 12 crew members on board after diverting from its planned flight path from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia to Beijing, China. All on board are believed to be dead.

There are a range of unknowns that will determine whether the pinger locator has any more luck finding the Malaysian flight than it did with the Air France one. First, the part of the Indian Ocean where the airline crashed is believed to be as much 23,000 feet deep, a potentially major problem given that the pinger locator can only operate to depths of about 20,000 feet. Second, Navy officials won't start using the device until they have a much more specific sense of where the plane went down. The black box's beacons have a 30- to 40-day battery life, so precious time will be lost while authorities search for debris or other evidence of where the plane crashed. And that's to say nothing of the condition of the black boxes themselves, which -- like Air France's downed airline -- may not be transmitting pings following the crash because they are damaged.

"This movement is simply a prudent effort to pre-position equipment and trained personnel closer to the search area so that if debris is found we will be able to respond as quickly as possible since the battery life of the black box's pinger is limited," said Navy Cmdr. Chris Budde, the operations officer for the Navy's 7th Fleet, which has coordinated U.S. involvement in the search.

The Pentagon began moving the pinger locator and an underwater drone to Perth on Monday, said Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman. About 10 U.S. personnel will travel with them to set up the equipment, the admiral said. He did not clarify whether they are civilians or with the Navy. The United States also will send an underwater drone known as the Bluefin-21 to help with the search, the admiral said. It is capable of searching up to 15,000 feet deep.

The search for a debris field, meanwhile, is continuing off the western coast of Australia, where tough weather has hindered efforts at times. Australian officials suspended the search for the day on Tuesday, March 25, citing stormy weather that had whipped up winds of more than 50 mph, heavy rain and rough seas. On Monday, Australian military personnel in a P-3 Orion spy plane spotted floating debris about 1,550 miles southwest of Perth, but it was unclear whether it was part of the downed airline. The search is expected to continue this week when the weather clears. U.S. forces now have a detachment of naval aviators based in Perth, where they are flying the new P-8 Poseidon spy plane in search of the missing airline's remains.

U.S. Navy photo

The Complex

NSA Official: Keeping Americans’ Phone Records Could Jeopardize National Security

A federal judge has ordered the National Security Agency to indefinitely hold onto the phone records of hundreds of millions of Americans in a massive database that civil liberties groups have long wanted to destroy and that's been at the center of a legal controversy for months. But in a bizarre twist, the NSA itself now says keeping the phone records will impose a heavy toll on the agency and will ultimately distract the NSA from its national security mission.

That assertion came in the form of a public declaration filed by the Justice Department in a hearing before a California district court Wednesday. Teresa Shea, the head of the NSA's Signals Intelligence Directorate, wrote that indefinitely keeping the phone records "would impose significant financial burdens on the NSA, divert personnel and technological resources from performance of the NSA's national security mission, and present other issues as well."

Shea said it would take months and several technology personnel who might otherwise be working on intelligence operations to devise the software and storage solutions to retain the data potentially for years to come. Under the rules of the phone records collection program, the records are usually destroyed after they turn five years old, but a judge told the NSA last week to keep them.

Shea's statement was a rare assertion by the NSA that keeping the phone records might cause unintended consequences. Agency officials, including outgoing NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander, have said the phone database is one of the most important tools they have to find terrorists inside the United States. Officials have insisted that it's used judiciously, and that any intrusion into Americans' privacy is limited because the database contains only logs of calls by phone number, not names or the recorded conversations.

Shea's remarks about the program come at a time when both the agency and the Obama administration are struggling with the question of what to ultimately do with the database of hundreds of millions of Americans' phone records. Officials have proposed letting the collection continue and having NSA keep the data, or requiring phone companies or some third party to hold onto it for future investigations. The government could scrap the program altogether, but that outcome that seems unlikely given the value NSA places on it.

The database has been perhaps the most controversial of the NSA programs revealed by former contractor Edward Snowden, and a series of recent legal maneuvers by civil liberties groups and government lawyers has effectively guaranteed it will grow even larger.

The NSA didn't oppose keeping the records. But Shea's declaration seemed to show some distance between the agency, which would have to come up with some technical solution for preserving the records, and the Justice Department, which first proposed last month holding onto them longer than five years in case civil plaintiffs demanded evidence of alleged spying.

Shea, the senior NSA official, said there were essentially two options on the table for keeping the records: Retain only those phone records of plaintiffs in the cases or to keep all the records en masse. The latter appears to be the more technologically feasible solution, and it's the one the government prefers, because it would prevent NSA from having to go through the database and pluck out only specific records.

But both approaches will impose significant "burdens, costs, and risks" to the agency, Shea said. She didn't spell them out in detail in her public declaration, but they are specified in a classified document that only the judge, and not the plaintiffs suing the government, may read, Shea said.

Still, it was not clear what particular burdens the NSA might face. Elsewhere in court documents, officials have said that older phone records could be kept on tape, a fairly primitive form of storage. The government has proposed segregating the older records from newer ones that are still used for terrorism investigations and intelligence purposes. Investigators and analysts wouldn't be allowed to use the older records.

Spokespersons for the NSA and the Justice Department declined to comment.

Phone companies have resisted proposals for them to store the records, citing high costs as one factor. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has said that U.S. carriers might have to spend as much as $60 million a year if they're required to retain old phone records.

Shea's directorate is responsible for collecting signals intelligence, of which phone records are a major source. It would fall partly to her staff to come up with a technological solution for keeping and storing the data.

Shea made her declaration to Judge Jeffrey White of the Northern District of California who last week ordered the agency to preserve the records indefinitely as evidence in a pair of cases brought by civil liberties and privacy groups opposed to NSA surveillance. There are currently six civil cases pending that directly challenge the program, as well as other cases challenging the legality of government surveillance undertaken during the Bush administration at the president's direction.

Judge White kept his order to preserve the documents in place on Wednesday and said he will issue a more detailed ruling soon.

An attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which represents plaintiffs in civil cases against government surveillance, said the government could destroy the phone records if it would confirm that nearly two dozen groups bringing suit are among those who had their records collected collected. A Justice Department attorney said that information was secret.

The department offered an alternative solution: The government could give the judge, in secret, a list of the phone companies that have turned over records to the NSA. But Judge White seemed uninterested in hearing alternative proposals at this late stage in the process. The government was set to begin destroying phone records last week, and the question of whether to preserve the information went down to the wire.

"The government [had] its opportunity to propose alternatives," White said, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. "They didn't do it, and now it's too late."

Shea Declaration

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images News