The scene is easy enough to picture: In a dark, quiet room at Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nev., a CIA “pilot” leans back in his leather chair, sips coffee, and watches a computer screen. He manipulates the joystick of his video console as the camera provides a grainy image of a man with a beard who may just have noticed an angry-sounding buzz overhead. The bearded man—7,000 miles away, in a mountainous village of Waziristan—runs for shelter. This apparently indicates his guilt, and the pilot labels him a “squirter.” The pilot locks a $60,000 Hellfire missile onto his target and fires. Boom: the “squirter” becomes a “bugsplat.”
Earlier that morning, the pilot kissed his children goodbye, then drove to his job killing people the other side of the world. His fellow intelligence officers, all a safe distance from any physical peril, talk bravely about “killer apps” that are designed to put “warheads on foreheads.”
As the pilot leaves Creech at the end of his shift, he drives past a large road sign: “Drive Carefully! This Is the Most Dangerous Part of Your Day!”
If we have lived in the nuclear age for nearly seven decades—an era into which we were forced, without discussion, on Aug. 6, 1945—we are now entering the drone age, and nobody seems to be giving it a second thought.
Drone machismo is not confined to soldiers and special agents. President Obama recently joked that he’d use a Predator drone on anyone who messed with his daughters. In real life, he’s already approved the missiles that have killed more than one American—without trial, of course.
In the dystopian films of the 1980s, much of humanity had been displaced by robots, and privacy had dissolved into constant monitoring by Big Brother.
But we don’t need to imagine the future anymore, because it is here. In the dystopian reality of 2012, the drone, or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), has the potential to ruin your life in ways you never imagined.
My own experience confirms the arbitrary nature of the drone killing. Last October I met a 16-year-old kid from Waziristan named Tariq Aziz. He wanted to know what he could do to stop the Americans from raining death on his family. Three days later the CIA announced that it had eliminated “four militants.” In truth, Tariq had been driving his 12-year-old cousin to their aunt’s house when they were both blown into very small pieces. This was just 24 hours after the CIA boasted that six other militants had been killed—it turned out that they were four chromite workers who had been minding their own business until a local informant apparently tagged their car with a GPS monitor and lied about who they were to earn his fee.
The CIA insists that it has not killed an innocent civilian in Pakistan for well over a year while eliminating hundreds of terrorists. People who know better sneer at this, including Jeffrey Addicott, a former special adviser to the U.S. Army special forces. At best, Addicott wrote, we should expect three innocent deaths for every two “bad guys. In the trade, this is called the ‘Oops’ factor.”
And even that may be overly optimistic: independent data suggest that U.S. drones have killed hundreds of women and children. That should be no surprise, since the CIA is using the same forms of intelligence that landed 779 people in Guantánamo Bay, more than 80 percent of whom were subsequently shown not to be terrible terrorists. The intel the agency relies on is purchased by offering bounties to people who would sell their own grandmothers for half the price.
It’s been a very fast descent into the drone age. Shortly before Sept. 11, then–CIA director George Tenet said it would be “a terrible mistake” to use a weapon like the Predator. It would be illegal, for one thing, and would lose the battle for hearts and minds. At the time, the U.S. condemned Israel’s policy of assassinating Palestinians.
But that was then, and this is now. Only eight years later, Tenet’s successor, Leon Panetta, described the drones as “the only game in town.” In 2001 the Pentagon had 50 weaponized drones; today it has more than 19,000. Assassination remains illegal under U.S. law for the time being, so it’s called “targeted killing” instead.
Drones can currently circle a target for two days, but their endurance is improving exponentially. Two weeks ago, for fear of the public-relations backlash, the U.S. government announced that it was suspending plans for a nuclear-powered drone that could circle overhead for most of the next century without refueling. Meanwhile, the CIA has acquired a thermobaric weapon that creates a pressure wave that kills humans but leaves property undamaged. Apparently, the moral debate in the 1970s over the neutron bomb passed them by.
The U.S. use of drones continues to get the most coverage, but the disease is spreading like a virus. At least 40 other countries currently maintain UAV programs, although the British names are naturally far more sophisticated: the Taranis is named after the Celtic god of thunder, and Rolls-Royce is making drone engines.
They’re not just used to kill people, either. In 2009 a SWAT team in Austin, Texas, carried out the first arrest aided by a law-enforcement drone—a surveillance WASP—taking a suspected drug dealer into custody. And last year, the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, also in Texas, dropped half a million dollars on an MK-II ShadowHawk unmanned aerial system. (Half the tab was picked up by the Department of Homeland Security.)
Of the four variants of the ShadowHawk developed by Vanguard Defense Industries, only the Mark IV is specified for nonmilitary purposes—a version that the Montgomery County sheriff pointedly did not buy. The Mark II can be fitted with a taser. Given the mistakes that police officers make with tasers when standing right in front of their suspects, we might be forgiven for worrying.
Of course, UAVs have many potentially positive uses: they could help provide accurate information in the wake of natural disasters, they might facilitate search-and-rescue missions, and journalists may soon find themselves reporting various difficult stories—from the Japanese tsunami to the Syrian uprising—with the help of drone photography.
But still, there are few limitations on drones’ use by others. Peter Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, described to Congress two years ago how a 77-year-old blind man has already flown his own homemade drone across the Atlantic. Even for those who are not amateur engineers, access to drones is so easy that I have one myself: I bought it online for $300. I thought it might be fun to get one and spy on the drone makers. There’s nothing illegal about it here in Britain. Because small drones are still considered the equivalent of radio-controlled toy airplanes, I can fly it almost anywhere I want. Even when I attach a camera, I can hover over the drone makers’ offices at 150 feet and film them to my heart’s content.
My ambitions are benign and targeted solely at getting the world’s attention, but others with more violent aims are way ahead of me. Hizbullah flew four drones in its last war with Israel. And UAVs are perfect for the distribution of germ warfare. While a ballistic missile would destroy 90 percent of the anthrax in its warhead upon impact, virtually all would survive to do untold damage if gently delivered by drone.
Even the “lawful” drones are creeping into our lives in ways we don’t realize. Already the CIA is boasting that it has a micro-UAV the size of a small pizza, invisible at night and capable of hovering soundlessly outside your window for several hours. Soon, the nano-class of drone promises to perform surveillance missions inside buildings and in confined spaces.
The current victims of drones seem to understand the future better than we do. In Pakistan, the locals refer to the drones as bangana, the Pashtun word for “wasp,” because of the buzzing sound they make, swarming overhead, seemingly beyond all human control.
Meanwhile, drone manufacturers gleefully project sales of $89 billion in the next 10 years. I paid only $300, so that leaves more than $88 billion worth of drones that will be capable of doing a lot of damage.
We need a full and open discourse on the rules that should apply to drones, or we will discover that we have sleepwalked into a nightmare.