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“There is one safeguard known generally to the wise, which is an
advantage and security to all, but especially to democracies as against
despots. What is it? DISTRUST.”

– Demosthenes

As NATO’s 50th anniversary festivities in Washington draw to a close,
a war continues to be waged on two fronts: one with the Serbian army in
Yugoslavia, and on the other side, with the world press and public
opinion. There appears to be little resistance on either front.

NATO feeds the press with daily briefings, including maps of targets,
video clips of bombing runs, and occasional descriptions or aerial
photography of alleged atrocities to bolster political resolve for
escalation of the conflict. The press dutifully passes on the reports
from NATO, with precious little means to verify them, and apparently
very little effort to do so either. At best, the press has managed to
indirectly corroborate some NATO stories with third-hand anecdotal
evidence from fleeing refugees.

We all remember on Christmas Eve how the television weatherman would
point out a superimposed image of Santa Claus flying across the radar
screen. Our childhood naiveté allowed us the privilege of believing what
we saw, and our parents had no trouble confirming to us that those
images were real, and that we had better get to bed before Santa passed
us by! Harmless propaganda, sure, but we were learning to defer to the
experts.

When fighting a defensive war, it is easy to define the aggressor as
the “bad guy,” but when NATO reformed itself to become the offensive
challenger, and policeman of Europe, it required a serious public
relations campaign on the home front to convince its constituents that
their cause was just. This propaganda may indeed be benign, and the
cause may in fact be just. But any free and democratic society raining
bombs on a sovereign nation must have a duty to constantly review the
facts in detail to verify that it is on the “right” and “just” track.

The computers on our desks today are probably more powerful than what
most CIA photo experts had 10 years ago at the end of the Cold War, so
it seems like the public has a powerful set of tools to evaluate the
propaganda from both sides. But just like in our childhood, we prefer to
defer instead of analyzing with healthy skepticism what we are being
shown on the 5 o’clock news.

Take, for example, the recent photo released by NATO as proof
positive of refugee camps inside Kosovo.

The boxes in the left photo may indeed be “Makeshift Shelters” in
displaced refugee camps, but without the labels at this resolution, one
might also see it as a photo of milk cartons scattered in a park! This
could be a Campgrounds of America near Atlanta, Georgia for all we know,
but since NATO has placed an authoritative map nearby, we tend to trust
their assessment.

Obviously, it would be unwise to distribute the full resolution
images so that the enemy (and potential enemies) would be able to
pinpoint our intelligence capabilities. But the question for civilian
politicians supposedly in oversight of the military should be this, “If
a lay-citizen cannot tell what a supporting photo shows without ‘expert’
labels, then is it ethical to use such a photo to justify political and
military objectives to those citizens?” In other words, if one must rely
on the experts for their opinion anyway, then any additional images for
justification are just superfluous propaganda.

Imagine being able to convict someone for a crime based on the coarse
pixelized images television uses to hide the identities of suspects on
“Cops.” For example, could you identify Monica Lewinsky from an 8×8
pixel array?

Another example of “content free” images can be found in the Izbica
“Mass Graves” photographs.

The yellow NATO markings immediately indicate the expert assertion
that this is a before and after picture of graves dug in a field. This
begs for a simple, closer analysis.

The “after” picture (right) has very short shadows, so it can be
assumed that this was taken near midday, making south be in the
direction toward the bottom left of the picture. The “before” picture
(left) has very long shadows to the lower right (toward the east),
indicating that this photo must have been taken near sunset. There are
no times or dates given by NATO for these photos, but if there really
was some modification to the ground, then these would have had to have
been taken on different days, which begs the first question: “Why did
NATO take the ‘before’ picture at all?” There are a few farmhouses, but
nothing of apparent strategic importance.

There are three possible explanations. (1) NATO somehow knew the area
would be of importance later; (2) The pictures were not actually taken
in the prescribed order, and the “sunset” photo was taken after the
“midday” photo to check back on the odd formations; or, (3) NATO
photographs every square foot of the theater, and recalls and compares
all of the photo reconnaissance for activity. The latter is probably the
most likely explanation, but that could be easily assessed by
questioning the details of the photograph in a NATO press briefing,
which has not been adequately attempted to date.

Another possibility is that the images were simply fabricated or
modified. While there are many advanced methods for detecting such
things (including walking up to the site with a news camera), a more
simple (and safer) method is to simply look for irregularities in the
color gradients of the image. Each pixel in a smoothed or blurred image
is usually relatively close to the color of the next pixel. A false
color filter can be used to highlight unusual color gradient artifacts,
such as would be created with a “cut-n-paste” operation. Without much
effort, a stair-stepped gradient around the added yellow marks becomes
apparent in the image (probably from converting the image to JPEG after
annotating).

It is also apparent that the “graves” have no obvious palette
discontinuities, so they probably were on the original image, at least
before the yellow lines were drawn on it in Belgium (or at the
Pentagon).

Simply comparing known artifacts in the image to the unknown
artifacts can reveal important information, such as comparing the
“graves” to obvious things like trees, houses and shadows for size and
color. A non-linear false-color transform helps highlight these
comparisons. The image below sets the darkest one-percent of colors in
the image to deep blue, and the brightest one-percent in the picture to
red.

Surprisingly, blue can be seen on some of the “graves” (near midday
remember.) These blue spots indicate a very dark direct shadow, exactly
the same darkness as the big shadows of the house, the fences, and the
bar ditches on the road. Therefore, the “graves” must either be high
enough to cast a shadow, or deep as a well (and empty.) The nearby field
shows the same dark blue, indicating perhaps some vegetative growth or
other change from the “before” image.

The same dark color might be registered because the soil is that
black, but then you would expect that color to be fairly uniform among
the turned soil. The dark spots are not uniform, yet they are
distributed like you might expect tall and short shadows from different
people, for example.

Also, the orientation and placement of the “mass graves” near the
farmhouses just doesn’t make any sense. Why dig sideways up against a
hill where there are big rocks? Why not dig in the soft tilled fields
next to the road? And frankly, why would “mass graves” be dug
individually instead of a single large pit such were discovered by
Allied ground troops after World War II?

Considering what might be near a farmhouse, could the “graves” really
be hay bales or hay stacks? Bales would explain the placement, and the
shadows, but on closer inspection, the “graves” don’t appear round or
stacked … they appear to be vertical. There is a distinct vertical
rectilinear alignment of the rows of “graves.” They are parallel with
the walls of the houses and fences. They appear to be 5 or 6 feet tall
(7-8 pixels tall, compared to 29 pixels for the 20-foot, two-story walls
of the farmhouse). And the vertical alignment is not likely a resolution
artifact caused by pixelization because the road and the fields have
many odd-oriented holes and rocks that are smaller, and are obviously
different in their alignment with the “graves.”

Note the stick figures are drawn to scale to the houses for
comparison with the “graves.”

Whatever they are (or were), there appear to be three rows of about
25 dark vertical objects in a field at the bottom of a mountain. Are
they Serb or KLA troops, haystacks, or a newly planted small orchard?
Whatever they are, it should be difficult for any responsible citizen or
journalist to accept these photos at face value as part of the rationale
behind the war in Kosovo, even if it is justified on other grounds.

It is completely possible that horrible things are going on in
Kosovo, based on Milosevic’s track record in the past. Milosevic may
indeed be killing civilians en masse right now. But if NASA can take a
picture of a star 12 billion light years away, why is this the best
image NATO can come up with from 15,000 feet to galvanize support for
the war? Until someone gets into Kosovo, one might as well just take
NATO’s word for the mass graves because these particular photos do not
add to the credibility of their stories.

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