Drones – unmanned aerial vehicles – seem to be everywhere in the news these days. Attending a recent fireworks show, I spotted something with blinking lights sitting in the same position in the sky. After watching it for more than twenty minutes, the blinking object descended into the hands of a waiting operator. It was a drone.
In order to understand the U.S. drone program a little backstory is necessary. A Wall Street Journal story (July 24), provides that history.
“On Sept. 7, 2000, in the waning days of the Clinton administration, a U.S. Predator drone flew over Afghanistan for the first time. The unmanned, unarmed plane buzzed over Tarnak Farms, a major al Qaeda camp. When U.S. analysts later pored over video footage from this maiden voyage, they were struck by the image of a commandingly tall man clad in white robes. CIA analysts later concluded that he was Osama bin Laden.
“From that first mission, the drone program has grown into perhaps the most prominent instrument of U.S. counterterrorism policy—and, for many in the Muslim world, a synonym for American callousness and arrogance. The U.S. has used drones to support ground troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and, particularly under President Barack Obama, to hammer the high command of al Qaeda. A recent study by the Stimson Center, a think tank in Washington, D.C., estimates that U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan have killed 2,000 to 4,000 people. Other countries are trying to get into the act, including Iran, which U.S. officials say has flown drones over Iraq during the current crisis there.
“Drones seem to be everywhere these days, buzzing into civilian life and even pop culture. French players complained before the World Cup that a mysterious drone-borne camera had spied on their training sessions. …
“The birth of the armed-drone program underscores two central ironies. First, the weapon that the U.S. deployed so eagerly after 9/11 was a hot potato that it juggled around internally beforehand. (Indeed, the George W. Bush administration devoted most of its lone pre-9/11 cabinet-level meeting on al Qaeda—convened on Sept. 4, 2001—to wrangling about the drone program.) Second, for a program now so widely criticized in the Muslim world for killing civilians, pre-9/11 policy makers were actually driven toward armed drones because the more traditional alternatives involved unacceptable risks of collateral damage.
“The origins of the armed-drone program have long been hiding in broad daylight—in the pages of The 9/11 Commission Reportreleased 10 years ago this week. (I was one of the many commission staffers who pieced together the story; details in this article are from the report, unless noted otherwise.)
“The U.S. wound up using drones only after trying many other ways to take the fight to al Qaeda, which was proving increasingly lethal—particularly after Aug. 7, 1998, when its suicide bombers destroyed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
“Bin Laden survived U.S. reprisal airstrikes on Afghanistan, and the Clinton administration began a frustrating search for other options—ranging from working with unreliable proxy forces to try to capture bin Laden to a cumbersome proposal to kill him with Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from submarines in the Arabian Sea. But many senior officials never felt they had truly “actionable intelligence” for such strikes, the risk of killing nearby civilians loomed large, and the lag time between learning of bin Laden’s whereabouts and the missiles’ impact would have given him hours to move.
“In March 2000, after Mr. Clinton complained that the U.S. could surely do better against bin Laden, counterterrorism officials renewed their brainstorming. One key problem: The intelligence community wasn’t coming up with information about bin Laden’s whereabouts reliable enough to green-light airstrikes. Pentagon officials suggested flying unarmed Predator drones over al Qaeda camps. Richard Clarke, the White House counterterrorism chief, liked the idea and dubbed it Afghan Eyes.
“The Predator is a snub-nosed, light, unmanned plane with a wingspan of about 55 feet, made by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems. More primitive Predators were first flown in 1994, when the Pentagon hoped that they would provide aerial video and reconnaissance to help dominate 21st-century battlefields. But they were built as surveillance platforms, not as remote-control bombers.
“After the first Predator buzzed Afghanistan in 2000, Mr. Clarke called the footage ‘truly astonishing.’ After another drone flight on Sept. 28 spotted the ‘man in white,’ the intelligence community concluded that he was probably bin Laden.
“Counterterrorism officials grew more eager for drone missions after al Qaeda operatives in Yemen rammed the USS Cole on Oct. 12 of that year, leaving 17 U.S. sailors dead. Mr. Clarke’s staff prepared a strategy paper calling for more Predator flights starting in March 2001, after the worst of the Afghan winter. But it was only after 9/11 that the new Bush administration flew drones over Afghanistan.
“Mr. Clarke, who had been kept on at the National Security Council, grew even more excited after he learned that the Air Force might be able to rig up Predators with Hellfire missiles—allowing the U.S. to spot and shoot bin Laden from the same platform. But Cofer Black, the head of the CIA’s counterterrorism center, wanted to wait until armed drones were ready, writing that ‘the possible recon value’ paled beside the risk of ‘the Taliban parading a charred Predator in front of CNN.’ The new national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, backed the CIA and held off on reconnaissance flights.
“As intelligence flooded in during the summer of 2001 about potentially ‘spectacular’ al Qaeda attacks, the CIA and the Pentagon bickered about the costs and control of the drone program. Meanwhile, George Tenet, the CIA director, was ‘appalled’ by the idea of CIA leaders deciding whether to take a shot with an armed drone.
“During the Bush administration’s first cabinet-level meeting on al Qaeda, the still-grounded drones dominated the discussion. Dr. Rice suggested holding off until the spring and then flying armed Predators. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill was ‘skittish’ about trying to kill an individual with a drone. Senior officials grappled with who would pull the trigger: Mr. Tenet or Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld? Having foregone months of reconnaissance flights, the administration now concluded that they were a ‘good idea’ and Mr. Tenet told the CIA to prepare for them.
They were still preparing a week later, on Sept. 11.
“In November 2001, a Predator drone killed al Qaeda’s military commander, Muhammad Atef —the ‘first known killing by armed drones,’ according to the Council on Foreign Relations. A counterterrorism instrument that had confounded policy makers before 9/11 began to turn into a favored weapon in the U.S. arsenal.
“Drones have since become a formidable symbol of American power—in ways that those present at the creation could scarcely have imagined.”
Up next: the ethical implications of using drones.