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Published: Thursday, December 8, 2011, 12:01 a.m.

Downed spy drone targeted Iran, U.S. admits

WASHINGTON -- The Iranian capture of a high-tech, stealth U.S. drone shines a light on the American spying mission there, but probably doesn't tell Tehran much that it didn't already know, a senior U.S. official said.
The RQ-170 Sentinel was providing surveillance over Iran and didn't just accidentally wander away from the Afghanistan border, as first suggested. The official said Wednesday that the Iranians will no doubt be able to tell where the aircraft flew. A bigger U.S. concern, the official said, was that the Iranians are likely to share or sell whatever they have recovered of the aircraft to the Chinese, Russians or others. Experts acknowledge there is no destruct mechanism on the Sentinels -- which are used both by the military and the CIA for classified intelligence gathering missions.
Iranian state radio reported Wednesday that the drone was deep inside Iran's airspace, flying over Kashmar, a town famous for Persian carpets and saffron, when it was detected by Iranian forces. The radio report said the craft was downed by Iranian armed forces.
The radio said Iran will soon broadcast video footage of the downed drone.
U.S. officials said that while they have enough information to confirm that Iran does have the wreckage, they are not sure what the Iranians will be able to glean technologically from what they found. It is unlikely that Iran would be able to recover any data from the aircraft.
Iran first reported the downing on Sunday but did not say when the incident happened. At the time, the official IRNA news agency said Iran's armed forces had shot it down -- a claim later rejected by U.S. officials who said the drone crashed over the weekend but that there was no indication it had been shot down.
Still, U.S. officials said that the U.S. employs a range of capabilities to gather information about Iran, particularly its nuclear program. As a result, officials said this type of mission is probably no surprise to Tehran and therefore is not seen by the U.S. as a diplomatic tipping point.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials said the drone and other craft like it have spied on Iran for years from a U.S. base in Afghanistan, and other bases in the region.
Officials said the U.S. built up the air base in Shindand with an eye to launch surveillance missions and even special operations missions into Iran if deemed necessary in the future.

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