U.S. military leaders are considering new guidelines for the use of helmet cameras on the battlefield after Islamic State-linked fighters in Niger exploited footage taken by a fallen American soldier to make a propaganda video that highlighted the killing of four U.S. forces.
Weeks after the deadly October 2017 ambush, people linked to the militants shopped around the grisly footage to news organizations. When few expressed interest, the insurgents added music and propaganda, made a short movie, and posted it online. Then it was written about in a number of news stories around the world.
The Islamic State group's capitalization on its fortunate find after the northern Niger battle highlighted the risk for the U.S. military of its men and women using the popular mini-cameras on missions. Experts say military officials are likely to respond with tighter controls.
"The need for clear guidance on the use of cameras in operations was amplified by the ambush in Niger," said Navy Capt. Jason Salata, spokesman for Special Operations Command, based in Florida. And U.S. Africa Command, which doesn't have its own policy on the issue, is also doing a review to determine whether new guidelines are required, said Army Col. Mark Cheadle, spokesman for the command.
The funeral of U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Bryan Black in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia, Oct. 30, 2017. Black was assigned to Company A, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) on Fort Bragg, North Carolina when he died from wounds sustained during enemy contact in the country of Niger in West Africa, Oct. 4, 2017. (U.S. Army photo by Elizabeth Fraser)
The goal is to ensure commanders understand the risks when they authorize helmet cameras or other video to be recorded. One idea centers on security measures that would make it harder for enemies who get their hands on such footage to use it.
"I think they're doing the right thing by saying, 'Well, we can't limit its usage, we've got to limit its vulnerabilities, things like encrypting them,'" said Spencer Meredith, associate professor of national security at the National Defense University. "So, how do we take something like a helmet cam, which is a vital tool for ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance), for training, for mission analysis, for after-action reports and put limits on its vulnerabilities?"
While some form of encryption would be the most likely approach, Meredith said, other technological fixes include ways to limit the battery life or otherwise make a device inoperable after a certain period of time. Other guidelines could address who can approve the use of helmet cameras and similar technology, and where and how they can be used.
Nigerien soldiers. (Photo by Army Sgt. 1st Class Christopher C. Klutts)
The commanders of U.S. forces in Africa and the Middle East will testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 13, 2018.
The military's increased usage of GoPros and other video cameras reflects their booming presence in our everyday lives. Such technology can deliver bird's-eye views of skiers hurtling down the slopes, divers exploring the sea floor, breathtaking parasailing tours, and whitewater rafting. It takes no special training for amateurs to get in on the act.
But the technology's penetration of the military over the years has been uneven. It was originally more prominent among special operations forces, but has since expanded to conventional troops as the cameras became more widespread and more commanders became convinced of their value.
The benefits range from training to assistance on the battlefield. Troops often wear the cameras during drills as a way to hone skills, identify shortcomings, and work through various exercise scenarios. Once deployed, forces use them on missions, capturing film of enemy operations or gathering intelligence.
The video is generally stored on the camera, not live-streamed back to observers or commanders. It can be useful after a mission to review details, analyze enemy tactics, or to prove or rebut charges of abuse or civilian casualties. For example, U.S. forces have tried to use video to capture dangerous incidents involving Iranian or Russian aircraft or ships, hoping to document what happened in case complaints are challenged.
Staff Sgt. Ryan Crane, combat cameraman. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Ryan Crane)
Combat camera photographs or video footage from training or military missions also are often released to the public or posted on Defense Department websites and social media accounts, after being declassified and cleared.
"The value is after the fact, when you're analyzing it," Meredith said. "Is there something that you missed, a person over here you may want to go back and talk to? It's the after action report where it becomes useful."
Rules on helmet camera use have lagged, however. Instead of having their own guidelines, such devices so far have been lumped in with other more general restrictions on photography and videotaping. These largely prohibit pornography or any unauthorized imagery of casualties, detainees, classified or sensitive equipment or locations, or intelligence gathering.
But those rules were designed to address unrelated problems. After video surfaced of several Marines urinating on the bodies of enemy fighters in Afghanistan, U.S. Central Command in 2013 beefed up the photography and video regulations for troops deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, and other areas in the Middle East.
They stipulated troops can use videos for official purposes when collecting evidence or intelligence or on other missions that would be aided by recordings, if approved by an officer who is a lieutenant colonel or higher. In the Navy, that would be a commander or higher.
In the Niger mission, the team of American and Nigerien forces traveled to the last known location of a senior militant and sought to collect any remaining evidence. A helmet camera could be used appropriately in that type of mission.