Times' Big Afghanistan Mineral-Wealth Scoop: Old News At Ellington Field And NASA

All together now: NO BLOOD FOR NIOBIUM!

When The New York Times reported in Monday's lead story that Afghanistan was sitting on vast riches in completely untapped minerals just lying around waiting to be dug up, it was old news out at Ellington Field. There, a group of pilots and techies spend much of their time in a hangar tending to two very unusual aerial spies that long ago came in from the cold.

It seems that one of JSC's two ultra-high-flying airplanes, called WB-57Fs and originally ordered by the CIA in 1963, was finding those very minerals in Afghanistan going back as long as five years. Apparently, the Times didn't know that the WB-57F came from Houston, or even from NASA, since they said only that the extent of Afghanistan's mineral wealth was discovered by "an old British bomber equipped with instruments that offered a three-dimensional profile of mineral deposits below the earth's surface."

We won't go into a lot of dull aviation-buff hair-splitting, except to say that someone in the Pentagon, the source cited for the story, was pulling a Timesman's leg a bit. (The WB-57Fs do have a vague British pedigree, but they are modified beyond any residual Brit-ness).

The airplanes may be old, but what is in them is state of the art, and the surveying equipment has its roots in black operations for which such radar mapping was originally developed in the Cold War. Now NASA uses it for peaceful purposes, though that's a stretch when discussing anything worth money in Afghanistan.

NASA did not try to hide its missions to Afghanistan, which began in 2003, but they didn't exactly advertise them either. But nothing that happens at NASA is too trivial to be worth at least one press release and two follow-ups. And anybody lucky enough to be on their press-release mailing list knows that when clearing out the daily spam.

Photos of the NASA plane at Kandahar have been popping up on arcane aviation websites for a few years now, and news of what it was doing there has appeared in scientific and professional journals and blogs ever since the geological mapping was begun. It's just that since it wasn't handed to reporters in the form of a breathless Pentagon handout, it wasn't yet what Washington journalists consider "news."

Why did the Pentagon leave out all mention of NASA and Ellington? We don't know. And we're assuming there was nothing political about the fact that NASA removed all its own elaborate blue markings from the aircraft at some point during its Afghan missions, leaving it all white from tip to tail.

The minerals NASA found include iron, copper, gold, lithium and niobium (both critical to the computer industry), silver and a long list of other valuable rocks and gemstones just lying there under the dirt.

And those who know such things are kicking around figures that approach $1 trillion. Not a shabby payday for a country that for the past 2,000 years hasn't stopped its national pastime of fratricide long enough to find a gross national product that doesn't involve the narcotics trade.

Oh, and in case you needed something other than BP oil to choke on for a change, try this: After the US spent bazillions of your tax dollars to find all these motherlodes to give Afghanistan its first real economic base, the Afghanis showed their gratitude by immediately selling the first batch of mineral rights, for copper, to the Chinese. That is, after the Chinese showed their gratitude by paying a reported $30 million bribe to the Afghani Minister of Mines.

A relative grunt-worker on the project for NASA was none too happy about that when we talked with him two years ago; somehow the idea of expensive American technology pinpointing valuable assets that were then essentially given away to the Chinese didn't sit well. Go figure.

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Mel Sharkskin