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The Rise Of The Killer Drones: How America Goes To War In Secret

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The Rise of the Killer Drones: How America Goes to War in Secret

An inside look at how killing by remote control has changed the way we fight.


An MQ-1 Predator drone goes through post-flight maintenance in Iraq.

U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Christopher Griffin


April 16, 2012 8:00 AM ET

One day in late November, an unmanned aerial vehicle lifted off from Shindand Air Base in western Afghanistan, heading 75 miles toward the border with Iran. The drone's mission: to spy on Tehran's nuclear program, as well as any insurgent activities the Iranians might be supporting in Afghanistan. With an estimated price tag of $6 million, the drone was the product of more than 15 years of research and development, starting with a shadowy project called DarkStar overseen by Lockheed Martin. The first test flight for DarkStar took place in 1996, but after a crash and other mishaps, Lockheed announced that the program had been canceled. According to military experts, that was just a convenient excuse for "going dark," meaning that DarkStar's further development would take place under a veil of secrecy.

The drone that was headed toward Iran, the RQ-170 Sentinel, looks like a miniature version of the famous stealth fighter, the F-117 Nighthawk: sleek and sand-colored and vaguely ominous, with a single domed eye in place of a cockpit. With a wingspan of 65 feet, it has the ability to fly undetected by radar. Rather than blurting out its location with a constant stream of radio signals – the electronic equivalent of a trail of jet exhaust – it communicates intermittently with its home base, making it virtually impossible to detect. Once it reached its destination, 140 miles into Iranian airspace, it could hover silently in a wide radius for hours, at an altitude of up to 50,000 feet, providing an uninterrupted flow of detailed reconnaissance photos – a feat that no human pilot would be capable of pulling off.

Not long after takeoff – a maneuver handled by human drone operators in Afghanistan – the RQ-170 switched into a semiautonomous mode, following a preprogrammed route under the guidance of drone pilots sitting at computer screens some 7,500 miles away, at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. But before the mission could be completed, something went wrong. One of the drone's three data streams failed, and began sending inaccurate information back to the base. Then the signal vanished, and Creech lost all contact with the drone.

Today, even after a 10-week investigation by U.S. officials, it's unclear exactly what happened. Had the Iranians, as they would later claim, hacked the drone and taken it down? Did the Chinese help them? If so, had they pulled off a sophisticated attack – breaking open the drone's encrypted brain and remotely piloting it to the ground – or a cruder assault that jammed the drone's signal, causing it to crash? Or did the drone operators back at Creech simply make a mistake, sparking a glitch that triggered the aircraft to land? "After a technical frack-up, people panic and start trying to fix it, doing things they shouldn't have done," says Ty Rogoway, a drone expert who runs an industry website called Aviation Intel. "It was fishy from Day One."

What we do know is that the government lied about who was responsible for the drone. Shortly after the crash on November 29th, the U.S.-led military command in Kabul put out a press release saying it had lost an "unarmed reconnaissance aircraft that had been flying a mission over western Afghanistan." But the drone wasn't under the command of the military – it was operated by the CIA, as the spy agency itself was later forced to admit.

Ten days after the crash, the missing drone turned up in a large gymnasium in Tehran. The Iranian military displayed the captured aircraft as a trophy; an American flag hung beneath the drone, its stars replaced with skulls. The drone looked nearly unscathed, as if it had landed on a runway. The Iranians declared that such surveillance flights represented an "act of war," and threatened to retaliate by attacking U.S. military bases. President Obama demanded that Iran return the drone, but the damage was done. "It was like when someone from Apple left a prototype of the next iPhone at a bar," says Peter Singer, a defense specialist at the Brookings Institute and the author of Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century. "It was a propaganda win for Iran."

The incident also underscored the increasingly central role that drones now play in American foreign policy. During the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the military conducted only a handful of drone missions. Today, the Pentagon deploys a fleet of 19,000 drones, relying on them for classified missions that once belonged exclusively to Special Forces units or covert operatives on the ground. American drones have been sent to spy on or kill targets in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Somalia and Libya. Drones routinely patrol the Mexican border, and they provided aerial surveillance over Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. In his first three years, Obama has unleashed 268 covert drone strikes, five times the total George W. Bush ordered during his eight years in office. All told, drones have been used to kill more than 3,000 people designated as terrorists, including at least four U.S. citizens. In the process, according to human rights groups, they have also claimed the lives of more than 800 civilians. Obama's drone program, in fact, amounts to the largest unmanned aerial offensive ever conducted in military history; never have so few killed so many by remote control.

The use of drones is rapidly transforming the way we go to war. On the battlefield, a squad leader can receive real-time data from a drone that enables him to view the landscape for miles in every direction, dramatically expanding the capabilities of what would normally have been a small and isolated unit. "It's democratized information on the battlefield," says Daniel Goure, a national security expert who served in the Defense Department during both Bush administrations. "It's like a reconnaissance version of Twitter." Drones have also radically altered the CIA, turning a civilian intelligence-gathering agency into a full-fledged paramilitary operation – one that routinely racks up nearly as many scalps as any branch of the military.

But the implications of drones go far beyond a single combat unit or civilian agency. On a broader scale, the remote-control nature of unmanned missions enables politicians to wage war while claiming we're not at war – as the United States is currently doing in Pakistan. What's more, the Pentagon and the CIA can now launch military strikes or order assassinations without putting a single boot on the ground – and without worrying about a public backlash over U.S. soldiers coming home in body bags. The immediacy and secrecy of drones make it easier than ever for leaders to unleash America's military might – and harder than ever to evaluate the consequences of such clandestine attacks.

"Drones have really become the counterterrorism weapon of choice for the Obama administration," says Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown law professor who helped establish a new Pentagon office devoted to legal and humanitarian policy. "What I don't think has happened enough is taking a big step back and asking, 'Are we creating more terrorists than we're killing? Are we fostering militarism and extremism in the very places we're trying to attack it?' A great deal about the drone strikes is still shrouded in secrecy. It's very difficult to evaluate from the outside how serious of a threat the targeted people pose."

The idea of aerial military surveillance dates back to the Civil War, when both the Union and the Confederacy used hot-air balloons to spy on the other side, tracking troop movements and helping to 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. When airplanes were introduced to warfare in the First World War, they charted the same pattern later followed by drones – technology deployed first as a means of surveillance, then as a means to kill the enemy.

During World War II, Nazi scientists experimented with radio-controlled missiles for their bombardment of England – creating, in essence, the first kamikaze drones. But it wasn't until the end of the 1950s, when America and Russia were competing to conquer space, that scientists figured out how to fly things without a human onboard: launching satellites, for instance, or remotely controlling the path of rockets and missiles. There were also significant technological shifts that began to make drones feasible. "We were building smaller engines and guidance systems, and we were upgrading our communication and computing abilities," says Goure.

I don't know how many people want to read through 5 pages, so here's also the last page.



of 5

The case, Nasser al-Awlaki v. Barack Obama, was argued before U.S. District Judge John Bates in November 2010. The transcript from the hearing reads like a Kafkaesque parody of a trial. The government's lawyer, Douglas Letter, repeatedly invoked the privilege of state secrecy, arguing that "as far as the allegations there is a kill list, et cetera, we're not confirming or denying." He also observed that Anwar would no longer be under the threat of "lethal force" if he turned himself in – an implicit non-acknowledgment that al-Awlaki was on a secret kill list. Jameel Jaffer, a lawyer for the ACLU, pushed back against the government's case, worrying that the president of the United States was being granted the sole and expansive power to decide "the question of whether an American falls within the category of people who can be assassinated." In the hearing's most surreal moment, the judge dismissed the case, ruling that Nasser had no legal standing to file a lawsuit on his son's behalf until Anwar was actually killed.

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.

In the end, it appears, the administration has little reason to worry about any backlash from its decision to kill an American citizen – one who had not even been charged with a crime. A recent poll shows that most Democrats overwhelmingly support the drone program, and Congress passed a law in February that calls for the Federal Aviation Administration to "accelerate the integration of unmanned aerial systems" in the skies over America. Drones, which are already used to fight wildfires out West and keep an eye on the Mexican border, may soon be used to spy on U.S. citizens at home: Police in Miami and Houston have reportedly tested them for domestic use, and their counterparts in New York are also eager to deploy them. Given the NYPD's record of civil rights abuses, it's not hard to envision drones buzzing high above Zuccotti Park to provide surveillance on Occupy Wall Street, or being used to surreptitiously monitor the activities of Muslim-American students.

Many who oversee the drone program, in fact, seem to have little but contempt for those who worry about the poten­tial dangers presented by drones. At a human rights seminar at Columbia University last summer, John Radsan, a former attorney for the CIA, admitted that the agency has no interest in debating the legal niceties of drone strikes. "The CIA is laughing at you guys," he told the assembled human rights lawyers. "You're worried about international law, and the CIA is laughing." A White House official I spoke with is even more dismissive. "If Anwar al-Awlaki is your poster boy for why we shouldn't do drone strikes," the official tells me, "good ???? luck."

If the targeted killing of al-­Awlaki doesn't inspire sympathy, given his alleged connections to Al Qaeda, then consider the case of Tariq Aziz, a 16-year-old boy from Pakistan. In April 2010, one of Tariq's cousins was killed in a drone strike. Believing that his cousin was innocent, and not involved in any insurgent activities, Tariq joined a group of tribal elders last October at a meeting in Islamabad organized by Reprieve, the human rights group. Neil Williams, a volunteer for Reprieve, spent an hour speaking with Tariq at the meeting.

"We started talking about soccer," Williams recalls. "He told me he played for New Zealand. The teams they played with from the village had all taken names from football clubs, like Brazil or Manchester United."

Tariq and other teenagers at the meeting told Williams how they lived in fear of drones. They could hear them at night over their homes in Waziristan, buzzing for hours like aerial lawn mowers. An explosion could strike at any moment, anywhere, without warning. "Tariq really didn't want to be going back home," Williams says. "He'd hear the drones three or four times a day."

Three days after the conference, Williams received an e-mail. Tariq had been killed in a drone strike while he was on his way to pick up his aunt. It appears that he wasn't the intended target of the strike: Those who met Tariq suspect he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, especially since his 12-year-old cousin was also killed in the blast.

The Obama administration has no comment on the killing of Tariq Aziz, even though his death raises the most significant question of all. Drones offer the government an advanced and precise technology in its War on Terror – yet many of those killed by drones don't appear to be terrorists at all. In fact, according to a detailed study of drone victims compiled by the Bureau for Investigative Journalism, at least 174 of those executed by drones were under the age of 18 – in other words, children. Estimates by human rights groups that include adults who were likely civilians put the toll of innocent victims at more than 800. U.S. officials hotly dismiss such figures – "bull," one senior administration official told me. Brennan, one of Obama's top counterterrorism advisers, absurdly insisted last June that there hadn't been "a single civilian" killed by drones in the previous year.

For Nasser al-Awlaki, who lost his teenage grandson to a predator drone, such denials are almost as shocking as the administration's deliberate decision to wage a remote-control war that would inevitably result in the deaths of innocent civilians. "I could not believe America could do this – especially President Obama, who I liked very much," he says. "When he was elected, I thought he would solve all the problems of the world."

This story is from the April 26th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.

Michael Hastings is a Rolling Stone contributing editor and the author of The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Story of America's War in Afghanistan.

It is unfathomable for most of us how it is to live in constant fear for your life. Yet it

's a reality forced upon thousands of Muslims by the American government. 7500 miles. A push of a button. A dead child. Over and over and over again. Half-assed explanation from the White House is too much to ask for. That's not rain in our ears. Who is the terrorist?

PS. Fix this goddamn forum. Posting a thread is a frustrating experience on CDC. They had better forums in 2005 than CDC is in 2012.

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Wrong place at the wrong time? - like those who thought they were going on vacation instead they were blown up as their plane was smashed into a building.

I doubt every single person living in Iran (more than just Muslims there) is living every single moment in constant fear for their lives.

Yes, I agree, what the US is doing is against what they say they want to prevent.

This is the world we live in.

Too many people causing too many problems...and not enough love going around...

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reading what tariq aziz said about living in fear of the drones makes me think of what my father told me about his experience's in world war war 2 . at about the same age as tariq dad lived through the V1 or buzz bomb campaign, he told me you would be walking along and you could hear them comming and then the engines would cut out and then you would dive for cover , this would happen day and night , this was his main motivating factor in becoming an aeronautical design engineer .

if any of you are interested in finding out how far the united states will go against it's own citizens , there is a book called THE COINTELPRO papers which documents this, these are photocopies of FBI [amongst other agencies] files complete with blacked out segments, which tell of counter intelligence programs they ran against their own people .

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What I find amazing is we have stories like Terminator that talks about the risks of our weapons technology being "too smart".

The amount of money spent on killing one another is simply incredible. There can be constructive uses for the military. Natural disasters, assisting police with mundane duties like traffic control, foot patrol, first aid. Providing shelter and food for the homeless.

But nah...lets just send a drone in to wipe people out. Lets not worry if some bright person hacks the system and sends it to the Pentagon or the White House.

As Heretic said ....

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What I find amazing is we have stories like Terminator that talks about the risks of our weapons technology being "too smart".

The amount of money spent on killing one another is simply incredible. There can be constructive uses for the military. Natural disasters, assisting police with mundane duties like traffic control, foot patrol, first aid. Providing shelter and food for the homeless.

But nah...lets just send a drone in to wipe people out. Lets not worry if some bright person hacks the system and sends it to the Pentagon or the White House.

As Heretic said ....

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  • 2 months later...

Drone strikes threaten 50 years of international law, says UN rapporteur

US policy of using drone strikes to carry out targeted killings 'may encourage other states to flout international law'


In his strongest critique of drone strikes yet, Christof Heynes said some may constitute war crimes. Photograph: Getty Images

The US policy of using aerial drones to carry out targeted killings presents a major challenge to the system of international law that has endured since the second world war, a United Nations investigator has said.

Christof Heyns, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, summary or arbitrary executions, told a conference in Geneva that President Obama's attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere, carried out by the CIA, would encourage other states to flout long-establishedhuman rights standards.

In his strongest critique so far of drone strikes, Heyns suggested some may even constitute "war crimes". His comments come amid rising international unease over the surge in killings by remotely piloted unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Addressing the conference, which was organised by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a second UN rapporteur, Ben Emmerson QC, who monitors counter-terrorism, announced he would be prioritising inquiries into drone strikes.

The London-based barrister said the issue was moving rapidly up the international agenda after China and Russia this week jointly issued a statement at the UN Human Rights Council, backed by other countries, condemning drone attacks.

If the US or any other states responsible for attacks outside recognised war zones did not establish independent investigations into each killing, Emmerson emphasised, then "the UN itself should consider establishing an investigatory body".

Also present was Pakistan's ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Zamir Akram, who called for international legal action to halt the "totally counterproductive attacks" by the US in his country.

Heyns, a South African law professor, told the meeting: "Are we to accept major changes to the international legal system which has been in existence since world war two and survived nuclear threats?"

Some states, he added, "find targeted killings immensely attractive. Others may do so in future … Current targeting practices weaken the rule of law. Killings may be lawful in an armed conflict [such as Afghanistan] but many targeted killings take place far from areas where it's recognised as being an armed conflict."

If it is true, he said, that "there have been secondary drone strikes on rescuers who are helping (the injured) after an initial drone attack, those further attacks are a war crime".

Heyns ridiculed the US suggestion that targeted UAV strikes on al-Qaida or allied groups were a legitimate response to the 9/11 attacks. "It's difficult to see how any killings carried out in 2012 can be justified as in response to [events] in 2001," he said. "Some states seem to want to invent new laws to justify new practices.

"The targeting is often operated by intelligence agencies which fall outside the scope of accountability. The term 'targeted killing' is wrong because it suggests little violence has occurred. The collateral damage may be less than aerial bombardment, but because they eliminate the risk to soldiers they can be used more often."

Heyns told the Guardian later that his future inquiries are likely to include the question of whether other countries, such as the UK, share intelligence with the US that could be used for selecting individuals as targets. A legal case has already been lodged in London over the UK's alleged role in the deaths of British citizens and others as a consequence of US drone strikes in Pakistan.

Emmerson said that protection of the right to life required countries to establish independent inquiries into each drone killing. "That needs to be applied in the context of targeted killings," he said. "It's possible for a state to establish an independent ombudsman to inquire into every attack and there needs to be a report to justify [the killing]."

Alternatively, he said, it was "for the UN itself to consider establishing an investigatory body. Drones attacks by the US raise fundamental questions which are a direct consequence of my mandate… If they don't [investigate] themselves, we will do it for them."

It is time, he added, to end the "conspiracy of silence" over drone attacks and "shine the light of independent investigation" into the process. The attacks, he noted, were not only on those who had been killed but on the system of "international law itself".

The Pakistani ambassador declared that more than a thousand civilians had been killed in his country by US drone strikes. "We find the use of drones to be totally counterproductive in terms of succeeding in the war against terror. It leads to greater levels of terror rather than reducing them," he said.

Claims made by the US about the accuracy of drone strikes were "totally incorrect", he added. Victims who had tried to bring compensation claims through the Pakistani courts had been blocked by US refusals to respond to legal actions.

The US has defended drone attacks as self-defence against al-Qaida and has refused to allow judicial scrutiny of the UAV programme. On Wednesday, the Obama administration issued a fresh rebuff through the US courts to an ACLU request for information about targeting policies. Such details, it insisted, must remain "classified".

Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU's national security project, said: "Something that is being debated in UN hallways and committee rooms cannot apparently be talked about in US courtrooms, according to the government. Whether the CIA is involved in targeted lethal operation is now classified. It's an absurd fiction."

The ACLU estimates that as many as 4,000 people have been killed in US drone strikes since 2002 in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Of those, a significant proportion were civilians. The numbers killed have escalated significantly since Obama became president.

The USA is not a signatory to the International Criminal Court (ICC) or many other international legal forums where legal action might be started. It is, however, part of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) where cases can be initiated by one state against another.

Ian Seiderman, director of the International Commission of Jurists, told the conference that "immense damage was being done to the fabric of international law".

One of the latest UAV developments that concerns human rights groups is the way in which attacks, they allege, have moved towards targeting groups based on perceived patterns of behaviour that look suspicious from aerial surveillance, rather than relying on intelligence about specific al-Qaida activists.

In response to a report by Heyns to the UN Human Rights Council this week, the US put out a statement in Geneva saying there was "unequivocal US commitment to conducting such operations with extraordinary care and in accordance with all applicable law, including the law of war".

It added that there was "continuing commitment to greater transparency and a sincere effort to address some of the important questions that have been raised".


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