The Dronification of State Violence, Part IV: The Predator

Previous section: The Dronification of State Violence, Part III: The Drone War Paper Trail

The Predator

“The bar for war had been lowered, the remote-controlled age had begun, and the killer drones became an object of fascination inside the CIA.”—Mark Mazzetti[1]

MQ-1 Predator

The advent of the Predator drone does not signal a clearly identifiable “break” with the past, despite this being a tempting narrative. After all, the U.S. military fought a bloody “technowar”[2] in Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s—where a range of technologies and techniques, including drone surveillance,[3] began to automate and quantify the “electronic battlefield.”[4] Indeed, there has been a slow march toward automation from the very birth of airpower. But neither is the Predator epiphenomenal to the conditions it is embedded within. To recall Hannah Arendt: “The objectivity of the world—its object- or thing-character—and the human condition supplement each other; because human existence is conditioned existence, it would be impossible without things.…”[5] Indeed, the technical capacities of the Predator have been continually translated into a series of geopolitical capacities. So, perhaps the most instructive way of approaching the Predator is to ask what action it made possible—what were the conditions that the thing itself modified and created?

KaremWhile the Predator has created a unique kind of relationship between the ISI and the CIA,[6] one defined almost exclusively by the administration of death-by-drone, its origins lie elsewhere. In 1981, an Israeli engineer named Abraham Karem assembled the “Albatross,”[7] a drone that could hover in the air for fifty-six hours. This capacity was a revelation to the defense community. Karem used seed money from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) to develop the “Amber” drone under Karem’s, newly formed company, Leading Systems Incorporated. Although the Amber enjoyed some success, it was insufficient for prolonged surveillance. Leading Systems then developed the GNAT-750 in 1989, which was equipped with low-light and infrared cameras, as well as GPS navigation capabilities that enabled autonomous missions of up to forty-eight hours. After Congress scuttled financing for UAV development in 1990, the company was sold to San Diego–based General Atomics.

GNAT-750In 1993 the Pentagon issued a requirement to support UN peacekeeping forces in the former Yugoslavia. Existing military acquisition procedures were controversially skipped over because of the urgent need for surveillance as the war unfolded: in this case the CIA was able to circumvent the Congressional block on UAV development because it operated outside of military jurisdiction. By this time, members of the CIA had become frustrated with the poor quality of satellite intelligence over Bosnia. James Woolsey, then director of the CIA, looked to General Atomics for a plane that could provide a persistent aerial presence. Under the codename “Lofty View,” the CIA operated the GNAT-750 in total secrecy over Bosnia. According to Woolsey, “I could sit in my office, call up a classified channel and in an early version of e-mail type messages to a guy in Albania asking him to zoom in on things.”[8] But the GNAT-750 was vulnerable to inclement weather and freezing. Compounding these problems, the drone could only fly a short distance before losing radio contact with the pilot; the C-band “line of sight” data link was limited to an effective range of less than 150 miles. This meant the CIA had to use intermediary aircraft to act as “relays” for the radio signal. Its successor, the modern Predator—with a wingspan of fifty-five feet, a length of twenty-seven feet, and a top speed of up to 135 mph—vastly extended the GNAT-750’s communication range by using a Ku-band satellite data link. This planetary-wide communications system was first tested in 1995 when Predator drones were deployed to the Balkans under Operation Nomad Vigil and Operation Deliberate Force.

CIA officeFive years later, in 2000, the CTC began flying Predators in Afghanistan, hoping to spot al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. But the plane was used only for surveillance at that time, as Clinton had largely restricted the agency to “capture” missions and using armed drones was seen as antithetical to the American way of war. Even by July 2001, the United States went on record to denounce Israel’s use of targeted killings.[9] This changed after the September 11 attacks: armed Predators were deployed in Afghanistan by 7 October, according to testimony given by George Tenet in the 9/11 Commission.[10]The CIA’s first Predator strike in Afghanistan took place in February 2002. The agency unleashed a Hellfire missile at a “tall man,” believing him to be none other than bin Laden. But the analysts had actually targeted innocent civilians gathering up scrap metal. And in a mark of historical irony, the site of the strike was Zhawar Kili, a mujahideen complex built by the Pakistan-based Haqqani network in the 1980s with CIA and Saudi support. It was as if the CIA was chasing the ghosts of its own past. By April 2002 American focus had already switched to the mounting invasion of Iraq. But the socio-technological precedent had been set: the CIA’s Predator program in Afghanistan was to become the model for far deadlier strikes in Pakistan, beginning in 2004.

The Predator drone has changed the CIA in a number of ways. First, consider how this remotely piloted plane has transformed the makeup of the personnel working at the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, which currently employs around 2,000 staff. According to Greg Miller and Julie Tate,

About 20 percent of CIA analysts are now “targeters” scanning data for individuals to recruit, arrest or place in the cross­hairs of a drone. The skill is in such demand that the CIA made targeting a designated career track five years ago, meaning analysts can collect raises and promotions without having to leave the targeting field.[11]

Langdon Winner describes “reverse adaptation” as the processes by which technological “means” soon become “ends” in themselves: “Technical systems become severed from the ends originally set for them and, in effect, reprogram themselves and their environments to suit the special conditions of their own operation.”[12] Hundreds of people in the CIA now support the smooth running of the Predator drone: from operators and engineers to lawyers and targeters. In short, the CIA is no longer as risk averse as it was during the 1970s following a slew of scandals involving assassination. In the judgment of Mazzetti, “the Central Intelligence Agency has become a killing machine, an organization consumed with man hunting.”[13]

Operation Enduring Freedom

Navy SEALS at Zhawar Kili cave entrance, Afghanistan

As the manhunt spread across the planet, the agency would frequently butt heads with the military, which was itself becoming more and more like the CIA. Such was the overlap between the military and the CIA that in 2006 the two organizations “carved” up the world to determine who was in charge of what front of the secret war. Sometimes they would work together; for example, in 2006, Navy SEALS were “sheep dipped”[14] into Title 50 Authorities during a raid in Damadola village in Pakistan’s tribal areas[15] (as they would be later in the Osama bin Laden raid in Abbottabad). In the Predator drone, the agency had discovered a technology that allows it to move from capturing individuals—the program of “extraordinary rendition” that defined the Bush era—to killing them. This moment can also be located in the bureaucratic landscape: in May 2004, the CIA’s inspector general published a damning 106-page report on the agency’s detention and interrogation program. A calculation was therefore made: the CIA believed it would attract less criticism, and would generate fewer legal headaches if it began killing rather than jailing terror suspects. “Killing by remote control was the antithesis of the dirty, intimate work of interrogation. It somehow seemed cleaner, less personal.”[16] The next month, Nek Muhammad was dead.


As we have argued elsewhere, “The drone is heralded by the U.S. military as the apex of a targeting logic—accurate, efficient, and deadly.”[17] With this belief in the drone’s technical ability has come a faith in its ability to reduce civilian deaths. In 2010, Harold Koh, State Department attorney, argued that “advanced technologies have helped to make our targeting even more precise”; in 2012 Obama called drone attacks “very precise, precision strikes”; and in the same year CIA director Brennan said that “targeted killings are ethical” because of the “unprecedented ability of remotely piloted aircraft to precisely target a military objective.”[18] These claims are important because they forefront the Predator’s technology characteristics to adjudicate, and indeed tranquilize, moral and ethical responsibility. Crucially, the drone’s technological ability is translated into a legal and ethical ability. As David Kennedy argues, “Whether a norm is or is not legal is a function not of its origin or pedigree, but of its effects.”[19] To put it more provocatively: the Predator is itself a moral actor and ethics are fast becoming purely technical concerns. As Martin Heidegger has observed, we underestimate technology if we see it only as a neutral “tool”[20]—the essence of technology is “enframing”: the ordering of the world into a “stockpile” of instrumental uses. Technology is always-already political, then, in the sense that it mobilizes a way of relating to the world and to each other. If Heidegger saw a kind of technological nihilism in industrial society, we see in the swarm of Predator drones above Pakistan the reordering of the world into the bureaucratic spaces of the disposition matrix.

Next section: The Dronification of State Violence, Part V: A Well-Oiled Killing Machine, and the Rule by Nobody


[1] Mazzetti, Mark. 2013. The way of the knife: the CIA, a secret army, and the war at the ends of the earth. New York: The Penguin Press. p.100.
[2] Gibson, James W. 1986. The perfect war: technowar in Vietnam. New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press.
[3] Gregory, Derek. 2011. Lines of descent. Open Democracy. Available online at
[4] Dickson, Paul. 2012. The electronic battlefield. 2012 (1976). Takoma Park: FoxAcrePress
[5] Arendt, Hannah. 1958. The human condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p.9.
[6]The CIA has an inventory of around 30 to 35 drones in and around FATA, although this figure has likely changed as U.S. counterterrorism continues to migrate westward toward Africa. While the exact number and type of drones remains unknown, it is likely the MQ-1 Predator and its deadlier sibling, the Predator B or Reaper, feature prominently.
[7] Finn, Peter. 2011. Rise of the drone: From California garage to multibillion-dollar defense industry. The Washington Post.
[8] Quoted in Finn 2011.
[9] Mayer, Jane. 2009. The Predator war: What are the risks of the C.I.A.’s covert drone program? The New Yorker.
[10] Tenet, George. 2004. Written statement for the record of the Director of Central Intelligence
[11] Miller, Greg, and Julie Tate. 2011. CIA shifts focus to killing targets. The Washington Post.
[12] Winner, Langdon. 1977. Autonomous technology: technics-out-of-control as a theme in political thought. Cambridge: MIT Press. p.277.
[13] Mazzetti 2013, 4.
[14] In this context, sheep dipping refers to the inclusion of an external organization within the CIA’s legal accountability.
[15] Mazzetti, 133.
[16] Ibid, 121.
[17] Shaw, Ian, G. R. and Akhter, Majed. 2012. The unbearable humanness of drone warfare in FATA, Pakistan. Antipode 44: 1490–1509. p. 1495.
[18] All quoted in Zenko, Micah. 2012. How the Obama administration justifies targeted killings. Council on Foreign Relations.
[19] Kennedy, David. 2006. Of Law and war. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 96.
[20] Heidegger, Martin. 2003. Philosophical and political writings. New York: Continuum. p. 279.

This entry was posted in Afghanistan, CIA, Hannah Arendt, History of Drones, Pakistan, Special Forces. Bookmark the permalink.

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