From Above
July 29, 2014 4:25 AM   Subscribe

How the US Stumbled into the Drone Era [WSJ] As ubiquitous as Predators, Reapers, Global Hawks and their ilk may now seem, the U.S. actually stumbled into the drone era. Washington got into the business of using drones for counterterrorism well before 9/11—not out of any steely strategic design or master plan but out of bureaucratic frustration, bickering and a series of only half-intentional decisions.
posted by modernnomad (6 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
pre-9/11 policy makers were actually driven toward armed drones because the more traditional alternatives involved unacceptable risks of collateral damage

Interesting point: it makes sense that a steered or even intelligent drone should be less likely to hit the wrong target than some kind of ballistic projectile. However, once you believe you can hit targets with tremendous accuracy, you start attempting things you would have fought shy of before, and in practice that can lead to increased collateral damage.

One could speculate as to whether drones and similar enabling technologies have a comparable impact at a strategic level, helping to tempt the authorities into involvement in projects that would have seemed too difficult otherwise, and so indirectly leading to more disasters and abortive interventions.
posted by Segundus at 6:51 AM on July 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

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posted by leotrotsky at 6:53 AM on July 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was hoping this article would have more detail about the aeronautics folks developing drone systems. There was a period in the early 2000s where the big military contractors were way behind in drone development and it was smaller upstart companies making things. I think that's over now, but I'm not really sure. There's also a story to be told (has been told) about military culture and accepting unmanned aircraft as "legitimate". And also another story about the CIA being given direct control over weapon systems. So much to say.
posted by Nelson at 7:15 AM on July 29, 2014

out of bureaucratic frustration, bickering and a series of only half-intentional decisions.

The history of any post-WWII weapons system development basically amounts to this, more or less. I don't mean to be dismissive about that, because it's fascinating and really hard to avoid this process, but if one does find a system with a "steely strategic design" behind it all the way one should note that it is the exception and not the norm.
posted by kiltedtaco at 8:33 AM on July 29, 2014

The problem I have with this article is that it deals overly much with the technical aspects of drones and sidesteps the bigger issue: the CIA deciding and then convincing the top guys to switch from mere spying, their usual role, to targeted assassinations.
posted by Postroad at 8:37 AM on July 29, 2014

...sidesteps the bigger issue: the CIA deciding and then convincing the top guys to switch from mere spying, their usual role, to targeted assassinations.

When did that happen? The article suggests the opposite:
Mr. Clarke, who had been kept on at the National Security Council, grew even more excited after he learned that the Air Force might be able to rig up Predators with Hellfire missiles—allowing the U.S. to spot and shoot bin Laden from the same platform. But Cofer Black, the head of the CIA's counterterrorism center, wanted to wait until armed drones were ready, writing that "the possible recon value" paled beside the risk of "the Taliban parading a charred Predator in front of CNN." The new national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, backed the CIA and held off on reconnaissance flights.

As intelligence flooded in during the summer of 2001 about potentially "spectacular" al Qaeda attacks, the CIA and the Pentagon bickered about the costs and control of the drone program. Meanwhile, George Tenet, the CIA director, was "appalled" by the idea of CIA leaders deciding whether to take a shot with an armed drone.
Important context for the article may be that this week is the 10th anniversary of the release of the 9/11 Commission's report, which the article's author Bass helped investigate and compose. Bass was infuriated by the Bush administration's very effective subversion and stovepiping of the Commission's investigation:
He told Hurley that Clarke's September 4 memo was a "document that grabs you by the throat, a document that you write when you're at the end of your tether - or well past it", as Clarke clearly was in the weeks before September 11. Hurley instantly understood the significance of what he was being told by Bass. The question for both men was whether Zelikow would allow them to share any of it with the public.

Months later, Bass could not take it any longer. He was going to quit, or least threaten to quit, and he was going to make it clear that Zelikow's attempts at interference - his efforts to defend Rice and demean Clarke - were part of the reason why. He marched into the office of Dan Marcus, the general counsel, to announce his threat to leave the investigation.

"I cannot do this," he declared to Marcus, who was already well aware of Bass's unhappiness. "Zelikow is making me crazy."

He was outraged by Zelikow and the White House; Bass felt the White House was trying to sabotage his work by its efforts to limit his ability to see certain documents from the NSC files and take useful notes from them. Marcus urged him to calm down: "Let's talk this through." But Bass made it clear to colleagues that he believed Zelikow was interfering in his work for reasons that were overtly political - intended to shield the White House, and Rice in particular, from the commission's criticism. For every bit of evidence gathered by Bass and Hurley's team to bolster Clarke's allegation that the White House had ignored terrorist threats in 2001, Zelikow would find some reason to disparage it.

Marcus and Hurley managed to talk Bass out of resigning, although the threat lingered until the final weeks of the investigation.
(Zelikow was the Commission's director of staff, a personal friend of Condoleeza Rice, and the author of the strategy paper which the Bush administration used to justify the invasion of Iraq... among other abuses of his position, he continually tried to maneuver the Commission to provide support for the notion that bin Laden was in some way connected to Saddam Hussein. When Bush appointed Rice to run the State Department after his 2004 election victory [which multiple Commissioners admitted would not have been possible if the Commission report had been written more honestly], she hired Zelikow is its Counselor. This is all taken from Shenon's history of the 9/11 Commission, which is an incredibly good read for something which is basically about bureaucratic infighting.)

In that context, what I read the article the article as really saying is that the danger of bin Laden was well-known and there was a plan in place for killing him, but both the danger and the plan were neglected by the Bush administration, and no one in the administration was ever properly held to account for that. But you can't just come out and say that in the WSJ.
posted by Coventry at 11:02 AM on July 29, 2014

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