What we actually know about the U.S.’s overseas drone operations couldn’t hold a candle to what we know is purposely being kept in the dark. There’s no arguing that.
Remember that the American program to use unmanned aerial vehicles to spy on and kill suspected terrorists throughout the Middle East is two-pronged, with strikes answering to either the Pentagon or the CIA. U.S. officials, including President Obama, only recently began acknowledging the Pentagon’s drone strikes. The vagueries come in dribs and drabs. I’m thinking of that Google+ hangout that had Obama admitting to the Pentagon’s Middle East drone games, which he stressed are kept on a “very tight leash” – you know, not just lit off all “willy nilly.” The president wasted no breath on the CIA, a drone arm that we know is live but whose specific operations and key decision makers remain top secret.
So all told, every last bit of detail that can be wrung from the public record on the U.S. drone wars abroad still comes out to mere droplets in a vast underground lake of murky, classified goings on.
But that could be changing. Enough statistics and raw data on the U.S.’s two-headed drone assault are maybe now dribbling out that, however slight or shortsighted, we can start sizing up the scope of America’s grey, semi-autonomous war machine. The secret isn’t just out. It’s being laid nearly half-bare for the world to see.
Iran recently announced what its aerospace researchers have been up to (a lot, it turns out, or so they’re saying) with that downed RQ-170 Sentinel, a U.S. reconnaissance drone that plummeted late last November into the waiting hands of Iranians. Tehran maintains its tech gurus hacked into the spy vehicle, also known as the “Beast of Kandahar” for its 65-foot wingspan, and brought the thing down remotely and seemingly in tact. The U.S. is still saying some technical glitch was responsible.
Taken either way, the story of the fallen Sentinel is a monumental gaffe for the Americans. This specific Sentinel, it turns out, was flying under the CIA’s hyper-covert banner, a fact the government tried to cover up during the initial phases of the crash investigation. It’s a face-palmy bit of military blunder that Michael Hastings details in the opening to a sprawling peek inside the U.S. drone complex. The piece is sharp, and definitely worth the read. But what’s beyond me is running a title like “The Rise of the Killer Drones: How America Goes to War in Secret” (italics mine) and then rattling off these figures:
PRICE OF CURRENT GLOBAL DRONE MARKET: $6 BILLION / YEAR
PRICE OF ONE REAPER DRONE: $13 MILLION
PRICE OF ONE PREDATOR DRONE: $13 MILLION
NUMBER OF DRONES CURRENTLY BEING FLOWN BY THE PENTAGON: 19,000
NUMBER OF U.S. DRONE RECON MISSIONS FLOWN DURING THE VIETNAM WAR: 3,500
NUMBER OF SUSPECTED TERRORISTS KILLED BY U.S. DRONE STRIKES: 3,000+
NUMBER OF SUSPECTED CIVILIANS KILLED IN U.S. DRONE STRIKES, ACCORDING TO HUMAN RIGHTS GROUPS: 800+
NUMBER OF PIONEER DRONE (A MODEL SOLD BY ISRAEL TO THE U.S.) MISSIONS FLOWN DURING THE PERSIAN GULF WAR: 300+
NUMBER OF COVERT DRONE STRIKES IN OBAMA’S FIRST THREE YEARS: 268
NUMBER OF DRONE VICTIMS UNDER THE AGE OF 18, ACCORDING TO THE BUREAU OF INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM: 174
NUMBER OF COVERT DRONE STRIKES LAUNCHED DURING GEORGE W. BUSH’S TWO TERMS: 50+
NUMBER OF COUNTRIES MOVING TO ACQUIRE DRONES: 50+ NUMBER OF NAMES PLACED ON SECRET CIA DRONE-KILL LISTS: 30
NUMBER OF MILITARY CENTERS, STATIONED AROUND THE GLOBE, THAT MAKE UP THE PENTAGON’S “MORE OR LESS IN THE OPEN” DRONE PROGRAM: 12+
NUMBER OF COUNTRIES U.S. DRONES HAVE BEEN DEPLOYED TO SPY ON OR KILL TARGETS: 8
NUMBER OF U.S. CITIZENS KILLED IN U.S. DRONE STRIKES: AT LEAST 4
NUMBER OF JUDGE ADVOCATE GENERAL LAWYERS (THESE FOLKS SIGN OFF ON THE CIA’S COVERT STRIKES) ON ’ROUND-THE-CLOCK NOTICE AT A CALL CENTER IN QATAR: 3
NUMBER OF DRONE PROGRAMS INHERITED BY OBAMA: 2
NUMBER OF INNOCENT CIVILIANS KILLED BY U.S. DRONES, ACCORDING TO OBAMA ADMINISTRATION: 0
So, why are we still calling the drone wars “secret,” again? It’s a nitpicky semantical quibble that’s harshing even my Thursday afternoon. Trust me.
But that Hastings (or me, for that matter) even put pen to paper on this one, and with solid numbers to back him up, by definition strikes away the notion of the U.S.‘s drone wars being in some way shrouded in total secrecy. They’re not. We know, for example, that the doomed RQ-170 Sentinel is one of those roughly 270 covert CIA drone strikes launched during Obama’s first three years. And we know that there are probably bound to be even more like it: The U.S. government has always had a rough time keeping tabs on sensitive, valuable, or otherwise historic stuff as it is, and has more recently been exhibiting all the tell-tale markers of falling drone syndrome.
That said, I cannot stress enough how little you or I or any other mere mortal knows of the breadth and legal shading of the American drone program overseas.
And yet to continue calling the drone wars “secret” seems silly not just as it’s patently untrue. It smacks of the sort of fringy, conspiratorial speak that only works against a legitimately terrifying and largely unchecked government war program ever receiving the full critical attention it’s due. Why can’t we just call the bloody thing for what it is? An open-air apparent.
This piece originally ran on Motherboard.