A long-running background mutter has now become a loud buzz of speculation, following cryptic comments by a famous US journalist regarding a top secret new surveillance-tech "Manhattan Project" targeting terrorist and insurgent leaders in Iraq.
Bob Woodward of the Washington Post - famous for his reporting of leaks by a senior FBI official regarding the Watergate scandals of the 1970s - makes the claims in a new book, which he is currently engaged in trailing. He says that the current reduction in violence being seen in Iraq is partly, as everyone assumes, a result of visible factors - the Sunni "awakening" against al-Qaeda in Iraq, the ceasefire by important Shi'ite militias, and the US troop "surge" in which many more American soldiers have been operating on the ground outside their secure bases.
But Woodward says there has also been an unseen special-ops surveillance and assassination campaign against terrorist and insurgent leaders, large numbers of whom have been eliminated in the past year - a campaign heavily reliant on mysterious, top-secret new intelligence technology of some kind.
"It is a wonderful example of American ingenuity solving a problem in war, as we often have," said Woodward in a recent TV interview.
"I would somewhat compare it to the Manhattan Project in World War II."
Woodward refuses to reveal exactly what the new wonder-tech is, that has let US and allied forces track down (and then, typically, kill) so many insurgent/terrorist commanders lately. Most analysts on the death-tech beat have thus offered suggestions of their own. There are some, whose access to classified programs is perhaps even better than Woodward's but who must cooperate even more closely with their sources, who say that in fact there is nothing new under the sun - just old tricks being tied together more effectively.
Many others are leading with our old friend the Predator/Reaper unmanned aircraft, whose abilities as an eye in the sky are well known. It's certain that a lot of the actual killings have been done by Predators, usually using laser-guided Hellfire missiles. Often the aerial death machines are guided in by their victims' cell or satellite phone signatures - the phones perhaps having been meddled with in cunning ways by spooks and/or special-ops electronic warfare (EW) "knob-turners". Generally the EW capabilities have been installed in separate aircraft rather than aboard the actual Predator weapons/camera/radar drone itself, though this is set to change.
But in fact the Predator - in the end, it's just an aircraft - isn't a game-changing piece of kit. Nor is the ability to track or even remotely activate phone handsets: there are credible reports - for instance in this book, by respected UK defence hack and former British Army intelligence-corps operator Mick Smith - that quite amazing mobe trickery was in use by US spec-ops elements as long ago as the 1980s. It's now common advice even among biz security types to remove mobile phone batteries during sensitive meetings, and serious criminals or terrorists would nowadays completely discard any phone that might have come to the notice of the authorities.
Credible rumours suggest that the capabilities Woodward alludes to may allow individual people (rather than items of equipment) to be tracked from afar; even inside buildings, even if the most draconian mobile-handset security protocols have been followed.
Wired magazine speculates that what's going on here may be an effort known to the US defence department as Continuous Clandestine Tagging, Tracking, and Locating (CTTL). Under CTTL, a variety of different techniques might be used to follow a specific person from long distances. A person might have a tiny RFID-esque device or transponder implanted in their body without their knowledge - perhaps while being held prisoner by Coalition forces. The teeny gizmo might need no battery, conceivably harvesting its power needs from body heat or ambient radio transmissions - or it might work more in the way that the radar-cavity tags in skiing jackets do, reflecting a radar pulse in a distinctive way.
Alternatively, according to a powerpoint presentation unearthed by Wired, it may be possible to distinguish a unique thermal signature for each person, as distinctive as a fingerprint or DNA signature but visible to an airborne sensor from afar.