The Rise of the Killer Drones

An excellent overview of the issues surrounding contemporary drone warfare, in The Rolling Stone. Here are some of the key points I think are worth flagging:

  • The idea of aerial military surveillance dates back to the Civil War, when both the Union and the Confederacy used hot-air balloons to track troop movements and help direct artillery fire. In 1898, during the Spanish-American War, the U.S. military rigged a kite with a camera, producing the first aerial reconnaissance photos. The first use of modern drones came during the Vietnam War, when the Pentagon tested unmanned aerial vehicles for  ISR: intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. By its close, drones had flown some 3,500 recon missions, and had developed two attack drones it never used in combat – the BGM-34A and BGM-34B Firebee. Israel then developed the technology further as it spied on the Gaza strip and assassinated targets: during the 1980s it sold several of its models to the Pentagon, including the Pioneer, which was put to use in the First Gulf War (in which Iraqi soldiers famously surrendered to the drone). It would be used for more than 300 missions in the Persian Gulf, later deployed in Haiti and the Balkans. The War on Terror weaponized drones. The first major success of killer drones was a Predator strike on a convoy in 2002, which assassinated the leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen. By 2006, the Pentagon had upped its goal, aiming to convert 45 percent of its “deep-strike” aircraft into drones.
  • The global market for unmanned aerial vehicles is now $6 billion a year, with more than 50 countries moving to acquire drones. At first, many pilots resisted the advance of drones, viewing them as nothing but a robotic replacement for highly trained fighter jocks.
  • As drone pilot Lt. Col. Matt Martin recounts in his book Predator, operating a drone is “almost like playing the computer game Civilization” – something straight out of “a sci-fi novel.” After one mission, in which he navigated a drone to target a technical college being occupied by insurgents in Iraq, Martin felt “electrified” and “adrenalized,” exulting that “we had shot the technical college full of holes, destroying large portions of it and killing only God knew how many people.”

Wrong Targets

But for every “high-value” target killed by drones, there’s a civilian or other innocent victim who has paid the price. The first major success of drones – the 2002 strike that took out the leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen – also resulted in the death of a U.S. citizen. More recently, a drone strike by U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2010 targeted the wrong individual – killing a well-known human rights advocate named Zabet Amanullah who actually supported the U.S.-backed government. The U.S. military, it turned out, had tracked the wrong cellphone for months, mistaking Amanullah for a senior Taliban leader. A year earlier, a drone strike killed Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the Pakistani Taliban, while he was visiting his father-in-law; his wife was vaporized along with him. But the U.S. had already tried four times to assassinate Mehsud with drones, killing dozens of civilians in the failed attempts.

Two Programs, Two Laws

Obama actually inherited two separate drone programs when he took office – and at the urging of Vice President Joe Biden, who has pressed hard for a greater emphasis on counterterrorism tactics, he has dramatically expanded them both. The first program, under the purview of the Pentagon, is focused primarily on providing reconnaissance and airstrikes to protect U.S. troops on the ground. In one large hangar at Al Udeid Air Force Base in Qatar, three JAG lawyers are on call around the clock, ready to sign off on drone strikes. The lawyers, who are required to take a class about complying with the Geneva Conventions, follow standard operating procedures similar to those used in calling in a traditional airstrike.

The CIA’s drone program, by contrast, has evolved in secrecy. Agency lawyers are required to sign off on drone strikes, but the process remains classified, and oversight is far less restrictive than that provided on the military side. To make matters even murkier, the CIA is conducting its drone strikes in places where the U.S. is not officially at war, including Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan.

According to John Rizzo, who served as chief counsel at the CIA for six years, the process of approving drone strikes effectively required him and 10 other lawyers at the agency to “murder” people from the CIA’s counterterrorism center in Langley, Virginia. Most of the lawyers are either down the hall from the CIA director’s office on the seventh floor – the “power floor,” as it’s known within the agency – or embedded in different services, including those designated as “clandestine” and “forward deployed.” When the agency wants to launch a drone strike, Rizzo explained in an interview with Newsweek, it asks a lawyer to provide legal cover for the assassination by signing off on a five-page dossier laying out the justification for the attack. The cable usually contains a list of 30 people targeted for death. Occasionally, the memos are rejected for not containing enough information. More often, Rizzo would approve the kill, writing the word “concurred” following the phrase, “Therefore we request approval for targeting for lethal operation.” In his six years as chief counsel, Rizzo says, he signed off on about one kill list per month.

Drone assaults on high-value targets – known as “personality strikes” – usually require approval from a lawyer like Rizzo, the CIA chief and sometimes the president himself. But the CIA’s more common use of drones – known as “signature strikes” – involves attacks on groups of alleged militants who are behaving in ways that seem suspicious. Such strikes are reportedly the brainchild of the CIA veteran who has run the agency’s drone program for the past six years, a chain-smoking convert to Islam who goes by the code name “Roger.” In a recent profile, The Washington Post called Roger “the principal architect of the CIA’s drone campaign.” When it comes to signature strikes, say insiders, the decision to launch a drone assault is essentially an odds game: If the agency thinks it’s likely that the group of individuals are insurgents, it will take the shot. “The CIA is doing a lot more targeting on a percentage basis,” says the former official with knowledge of the agency’s drone program.

Over the past year, however, the president’s increasing reliance on drones has caused a growing rift within the administration. According to sources in the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan, Ambassador Cameron Munter was furious that the CIA was conducting drone strikes without consulting him over the potential diplomatic fallout. At issue was a particularly deadly drone strike in March 2011 that the Americans claimed killed 21 militants, and the Pakistanis claimed killed 42 civilians.

The crisis sparked a miniature blowup in the White House between the president’s national security team and the CIA. Last spring, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon ordered a review of the drone program – not to halt it, but to figure out a way to deploy drones that might ease the concerns of Munter and other diplomats. The prospect of any additional oversight, however modest, set off alarms at the CIA. At the center of the debate was Obama’s newly appointed CIA chief, Gen. David Petraeus. Petraeus sided with the White House, recognizing the need to strike a balance between maintaining a strong relationship with Pakistan and aggressively pursuing a military strategy that includes drone strikes.

In the end, though, the CIA lost the larger battle over drones. After Donilon completed the White House review, Ambassador Munter and the State Department were granted more say in decisions over the timing and targeting of drone strikes. Although the move was intended to provide more civilian oversight of covert attacks, it outraged human rights activists, who blasted the White House for putting a U.S. ambassador in the position of signing off on extralegal death warrants in a foreign country. “Giving a civilian diplomat veto power on an assassination campaign is incredible,” says Clive Stafford Smith, the executive director of Reprieve, a human rights group that is suing over the use of drones. “Can you imagine what the reaction would be if the Pakistani ambassador in Washington was overseeing a campaign of targeted killing in America?”

It remains unclear what role the White House itself plays in selecting the names that wind up placed on the kill lists. Some U.S. officials have described a secret panel within the National Security Council that keeps a list of targets to kill or capture. The panel, which has no paperwork authorizing its existence, is said to involve top counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, who was a staunch advocate of the Bush administration’s decision to torture prisoners at Guantánamo. Other U.S. officials familiar with the targeting process say the idea of a secret panel overstates the case. The NSC, they insist, isn’t involved in the vast majority of drone strikes on a daily basis – especially the majority of “signature strikes” launched by the CIA. That means the CIA still has broad authority to curate its own kill lists, with limited oversight from the White House. As one former CIA official put it: “The NSC decides when the president needs to be involved – and what fingerprints to leave, if any.”

The Obama administration has repeatedly refused to release the secret Justice Department memo that outlines its legal justification for the attack on al-Awlaki. But on March 5th, in a speech at Northwestern University, Attorney General Eric Holder finally broke the official silence. A targeted killing against a U.S. citizen is legal, he said, only if the citizen cannot be captured, poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the U.S., and qualifies as a legitimate target consistent with the laws of war. “When such individuals take up arms against this country and join Al Qaeda in plotting attacks designed to kill their fellow Americans,” Holder declared, “there may be only one realistic and appropriate response.”Brushing aside criticisms from civil libertarians, Holder rejected the idea that the due-process provision of the Constitution requires the president to get permission from a federal court before killing a U.S. citizen. And in a brazenly political double standard, he insisted that Congress had given the president the go-ahead to use lethal methods under a resolution passed a week after September 11th that authorizes the use of all necessary force to prevent future acts of terrorism against the United States – the exact same resolution that the Bush administration used to justify its illegal policy of torture and extraordinary rendition.

The RQ-170 Sentinel, the CIA drone that “crashed” in Iran, 7,500 miles away from where it was been controlled at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, began over 15 years ago with the DarkStar project by Lockheed Martin. It is impossible to detect by radar (it uses intermittent communications) and can hover for hours at an altitude of up to 50,000 feed. The RQ-170 Sentinel was deployed in the raid that killed bin Laden.

  • Today’s military deploys a fleet of 19,000 drones, and drones have eliminated targets and flown reconnaissance missions in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, and Libya. More than 3,000 have died in Pakistan as a result of CIA-controlled drones.
  • The threat of blowback is not fully understood.
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