The Secret Life (and death) of Drones

The Washington Post published an interesting article on the intense secrecy surrounding the U.S. drone wars around the world:

Since September, at least 60 people have died in 14 reported CIA drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal regions. The Obama administration has named only one of the dead, hailing the elimination of Janbaz Zadran, a top official in the Haqqani insurgent network, as a counterterrorism victory.

The identities of the rest remain classified, as does the existence of the drone program itself. Because the names of the dead and the threat they were believed to pose are secret, it is impossible for anyone without access to U.S. intelligence to assess whether the deaths were justified.

The administration has said that its covert, targeted killings with remote-controlled aircraft in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and potentially beyond are proper under both domestic and international law. It has said that the targets are chosen under strict criteria, with rigorous internal oversight.

It has parried reports of collateral damage and the alleged killing of innocents by saying that drones, with their surveillance capabilities and precision missiles, result in far fewer mistakes than less sophisticated weapons.

Yet in carrying out hundreds of strikes over three years — resulting in an estimated 1,350 to 2,250 deaths in Pakistan — it has provided virtually no details to support those assertions.

Citing broad powers and secrecy, the U.S. government has basically adopted a ‘trust me’ concept based on the President’s personal legitimacy:

The drone program is actually three separate initiatives that operate under a complicated web of overlapping legal authorities and approval mechanisms.

The least controversial is the military’s relatively public use of armed drones in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, and more recently in Libya. The other two programs — the CIA’s use of drones in Pakistan, and counterterrorism operations by the CIA and the military in Yemen, Somalia and conceivably beyond — are the secret parts.

Under domestic law, the administration considers all three to be covered by the Authorization for Use of Military Force that Congress passed days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In two key sentences that have no expiration date, the AUMF gives the president sole power to use “all necessary and appropriate force” against nations, groups or persons who committed or aided the attacks, and to prevent future attacks.

The U.S. government has fought the release of information sought by human rights and civil liberties groups and does not even acknowledge the existence of its targeted assassination programs:

Some critics of the use of drones are discomfited by the relatively risk-free, long-distance killing via video screen and joystick. But the question of whether such killings are legal “has little to do with the choice of the weapon,” Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, said this year in one of several think tank conferences where the subject was debated. “The question is about who can be killed, whether using this weapon or any other.” In a letter to Obama Monday, Human Rights Watch called the administration’s claims of compliance with international law “unsupported” and “wholly inadequate.”

Civil and human rights groups have been unsuccessful in persuading U.S. courts to force the administration to reveal details of the program. In September, a federal judge found for the CIA in an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit alleging that the agency’s refusal to release information about drone killings was illegal.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, the ACLU asked for documents related to “the legal basis in domestic, foreign, and international law for the use of drones to conduct targeted killings,” as well as information about target selection, the number of people killed, civilian casualties, and “geographic or territorial limits” to the program.

When the CIA replied that even the “fact of the existence or nonexistence” of such a program was classified, the ACLU sued, saying that then-CIA Director Leon E. Panetta had made the classification argument moot with repeated public comments about the killings to the media and Congress.

Another aspect of the drone wars that has been kept hidden is its history of defects, malfunctions and accidents.   The apparent capture of a secret U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel drone by Iran has shined a spotlight on the technological weaknesses of even this most secret and technologically advanced weapon system.  In “The Drone That Fell From the Sky,” Nick Turse writing in Tom Dispatch exposed the flaws and dangers of the U.S. reliance of these new weapons:

A document detailing a U.S. Air Force investigation of that Predator crash, examined by TomDispatch, sheds light on the lifecycle and flaws of drones — just what can go wrong in unmanned air operations — as well as the shadowy system of bases and units scattered across the globe that keep those drones constantly in the skies as the U.S. becomes ever more reliant on remote-controlled warfare.

That report and striking new statistics obtained from the military offer insights into underexamined flaws in drone technology.  They are also a reminder of the failure of journalists to move beyond awe when it comes to high-tech warfare and America’s latest wonder weapons — their curious inability to examine the stark limitations of man and machine that can send even the most advanced military technology hurtling to Earth.

Turse also explains how the technological weaknesses, human errors and accelerated tempo of this seemingly low risk form of warfare are having profound negative impacts on U.S. interests, another case of tactical superiority and success resulting in strategic failure:

Remotely piloted aircraft have regularly been touted, in the press and the military, as wonder weapons, the way, not so long ago, counterinsurgency tactics were being promoted as an elixir for military failure.  Like the airplane, the tank, and nuclear weapons before it, the drone has been touted as a game-changer, destined to alter the very essence of warfare.

Instead, like the others, it has increasingly proven to be a non-game-changer of a weapon with ordinary vulnerabilities.  Its technology is fallible and its efforts have often been counterproductive in these last years.  For example, the inability of pilots watching computer monitors on the other side of the planet to discriminate between armed combatants and innocent civilians has proven a continuing problem for the military’s drone operations, while the CIA’s judge-jury-executioner assassination program is widely considered to have run afoul of international law — and, in the case of Pakistan, to be alienating an entire population.  The drone increasingly looks less like a winning weapon than a machine for generating opposition and enemies.

[…]

The recent losses of the Pentagon’s robot Sentinel in Iran, the Reaper in the Seychelles, and the Predator in Kandahar, however, offer a window into a future in which the global skies will be filled with drones that may prove far less wondrous than Americans have been led to believe.  The United States could turn out to be relying on a fleet of robots with wings of clay.

 

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