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Exploring Technology, Effectiveness, Consequences of Drone Warfare

January 23, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
PBS's NOVA explores the pros, cons and controversies of drone warfare, as well as the technology behind drone strikes. Jeffrey Brown discusses with Seth Jones of RAND Corporation and Chris Anders from the American Civil Liberties Union.

JEFFREY BROWN: And now to our second story about the military: the turn to drone warfare in the hunt for terrorists.

Tonight’s edition of “NOVA” explores this sophisticated technology, its uses and the controversy it’s stirred.

This excerpt shows a U.S. military training exercise for those charged with directing drones to track and hit their targets.

NARRATOR: The training mission offers a rare glimpse into the mechanics of how the U.S. uses drones to support troops and prosecute its war on terror. The goal is to make it as realistic as possible, so pilots can avoid mistakes when in battle.

MAN: They should be checking in here probably in the next 20 minutes or so.

MAN: It’s going to be an MQ-9 Reaper.

MAN: Check. Check.

MAN: If they’re at 25,000 feet, which they generally work, we’re not going to be able to see them at all.

NARRATOR: It takes about half-an-hour to reach the mock village. Drones like the Reaper can fly on their own using autopilot and preset GPS locations. But the Air Force still keeps human hands on the controls at all times.

PETER SINGER, Brookings Institution: People have this concept of either it’s a manned plane and the pilot’s doing everything on, or it’s an unmanned plane and it’s something out of the “Terminator” movies. The reality is, it’s in the middle right now for both the manned and the unmanned planes. Our mind tries to put it terms of, robot or human? But the reality is a mix.

NARRATOR: As Chad pilots the Reaper, his sensor operator, Jay, controls the cameras and lasers. On the ground, the fake insurgents enter the village as the Reaper hovers miles above.

MAN: Say status.

MAN: We have eyes on the target.

NARRATOR: Chad gets direction from the soldier, whose handheld receiver and computer allow him to see what Chad sees. Chad’s call sign is Bones. The soldier goes by Rally.

MAN: Rally, Bones, we have two tanks moving around inside the northwest corner of the compound.

NARRATOR: The soldier directs Chad and Jay to follow an HVI, or high-value individual, dressed in black.

MAN: Rally from Bones 3-4, it looks like the one individual wearing black is now getting on the motorcycle and departing the group.

NARRATOR: Depending on the situation, the decision to kill comes from an intelligence officer who could be anywhere, a battle commander on the ground, or sometimes the pilot.

JEFFREY BROWN: Since the Obama administration came to power four years ago, the United States has vastly increased the number of drone strikes against suspected terrorists.

Just today, Reuters reported that six suspected al-Qaida militants were killed in Yemen. But their use has been highly controversial, on a number of levels.


And we move to that debate now, with Seth Jones, who worked for the commander of U.S. special forces in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2011 and is now a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, and Chris Anders, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU has filed lawsuits against the government challenging the legal basis for the drone program.

Welcome to both of you.

I want to start, Seth, with the effectiveness question. How effective are drones strikes? What have they achieved?

SETH JONES, RAND Corporation: Well, I think on the one hand, drones have been effective in taking off the battlefield several individuals that have been actively involved in plotting attacks against the U.S. homeland, Abu Ubaida al-Masri, Ilyas Kashmiri, Rashid Rauf, all of them plotting active attacks.

And the drone strikes severely disrupted those attacks. I would also say, though, that they are not sufficient. Strikes in and of themselves don’t hold territory. They don’t deal with the root causes of terrorism. So one should never argue — or it would be incorrect to argue that they are sufficient to ending how terrorist groups operate or ending terrorism.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK. But as to their — do you dispute the effectiveness in taking out some of the top leaders?

CHRIS ANDERS, American Civil Liberties Union: Well, the truth is that no one really knows exactly what’s going on with their effectiveness or not, because this is a program that has been wrapped in secrecy. Every aspect of this program is secret, so secret, in fact, that even members of the Senate Intelligence Committee that are supposed to be overseeing this program are not able to see even the legal justification for the program.

But what we do know is that there have been over 300 strikes. There have been — drone strikes. There are over 3,000 people who have died. Most of those are far from any traditional battlefield. So we could point out — point to some people that the administration has selectively leaked as successes, but what we don’t know are the failures.

JEFFREY BROWN: And one of the questions among those killed, of course, has been the number of civilians, the unintended casualties. How much do we know about that?

SETH JONES: Well, the data is not really that good on civilian casualties.

It would be helpful to get a more transparent assessment of civilian approaches. I have talked to a range of human rights organizations in Pakistan’s tribal areas who have argued, though, that from their perspective on the ground, civilian casualties are rather minimal.

But other than some sporadic conversations I have had with people in the tribal areas, I think the data that we have publicly is limited.

JEFFREY BROWN: What does your data show or people you talk to show?

CHRIS ANDERS: Well, two things.

One is, tomorrow, the United Nations is going to announce it’s appointing a special investigator into civilian deaths by drones, and through this targeted killing program. So we should be able to get some of the real facts through this U.N. investigation.

It’s ridiculous that the United States itself hasn’t conducted this kind of investigation or disclosed its results. But that investigation will be done by the U.N. The second thing, is General McChrystal just earlier this month talked about the drone program and how — how the attacks on civilians and the civilian casualties are causing what he calls a visceral reaction of hatred in the affected countries, the very people we’re trying to win over to our side.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s been one of the issues, of course, is, are we making more enemies than killing enemies by doing this?

SETH JONES: Well, my experience in particular in Pakistan, where most of these have happened, is that most Pakistanis are upset not that drones are being used, but more upset that the Pakistan government isn’t using them.

They’re upset that the U.S. is doing them in Pakistan territory. That, I think, is often more issue than the drones themselves.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you don’t see us as creating, you know, unintended blowback because of — I think that’s the argument, is that these drone attacks create kind of unintended consequences of more people angry at us.

SETH JONES: Well, I think there always is a danger of overusing them. Again, I think there have been several cases, ones that I’m aware of, which have disrupted people actively involved in plotting.

But I would also say why Pakistanis, for example, are unhappy with the Americans, it’s complicated. There are a range of factors. It’s not just drones. There have been a range of issues, including the raid against bin Laden,that did so.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is there evidence of more direct of — more direct evidence that there is that kind of blowback that you think is happening?

CHRIS ANDERS: Well, look, I spend a lot of time lobbying Congress and members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committee. There is a lot of worry there, particularly about the CIA program, about — and about the military and about the possibility of repercussions and reprisals against American soldiers in these parts of the world, and also the CIA in particular pulling the United States into conflicts that will be very difficult to get out of.

And that’s why, especially as you start looking into places like North Africa, to Mali, to Mauritania, some other places that are now being discussed as possible other places for drones to be used, there’s a lot of worry in the military about whether — whether we get sucked into that through drones and kind of this kind of easy, addictive tool, whether it’s going to end up costing the United States a possible, you know, years-long, decade-long conflict there.

JEFFREY BROWN: What’s the — moving to the legal — legally, what is the nut of the legal issue, the legal case against the use of drones?

CHRIS ANDERS: Well, the question — every country has a right to defend itself and defend itself against imminent, concrete, specific attacks that could cause death, even if those are away from the battlefield.

But what we don’t know here is exactly how these rules are being applied. Now, we know that The Washington Post just reported over the weekend that there’s a secret playbook that’s being developed by the Obama administration. But from that playbook, the CIA program in Pakistan, which is the biggest player in this whole thing, is entirely exempt.

So you have a secret playbook on what the rules are, but the rules don’t apply to the biggest player. So, to say we follow the rule of law, but we don’t even know what the rules are, and then the rules don’t apply to the biggest player is a little bit of a joke, I guess.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think about the legal issue here?


SETH JONES: Well, the legal issue in part hinges on the 2001 authorization of the use of military force, or AUMF.

It’s worth noting that both Republican and Democrat attorneys general since the Bush administration into the Obama administration have argued that it is legal in terms of self-defense purposes to target individuals actively threatening the United States.

JEFFREY BROWN: In other countries?

SETH JONES: In other countries.

JEFFREY BROWN: Without declared wars?

SETH JONES: Yes. Well, that’s part of the issue here is we have an ongoing conflict with a terrorist organization that has declared jihad or war against the United States.

CHRIS ANDERS: Well, what we don’t know is, we don’t even know to what extent this administration is relying on the 2001 AUMF, or are they relying on self-defense or some combination or nothing at all, right?

The legal opinion that was drafted by the Justice Department now a couple of years ago has been so tightly held, that even Senator Wyden, the number three ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is supposed to have oversight, is not allowed to see the opinion.

So, this is — it means — and then the courts themselves are not applying due process. They have declined to take the cases, the challenges to the program. So it means that this is a completely — the checks and balances that should be applying don’t apply here. We don’t have the courts having oversight, and we basically have the committees that are supposed to have oversight over this program be denied the basic information on what the law is.

JEFFREY BROWN: And let me just ask you briefly here, because the other question that always comes up is what happens as other countries get this technology and use it against our allies or potentially against us and try to make the same legal case?

SETH JONES: Well, look, I think, as we saw with nuclear proliferation, that at some point, the U.S. has to spearhead an effort to begin to establish legal norms for the use of this, like the Non-Proliferation Treaty that dealt with nuclear weapons.

So, at some point, sooner rather than later, the Europeans have capabilities, the Indians, the Chinese. At some point, we have got to get a better handle on legal — international legal limitations to this.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Seth Jones, Chris Anders, thank you both very much.

CHRIS ANDERS: Thank you.

SETH JONES: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: And there’s more on this on our Web site, where you can read a background report from the Council on Foreign Relations on drones and targeted killings.