Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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You Might Have Missed: This Week in Drones, Yemen, and Hollywood

by Micah Zenko
June 1, 2012

Protesters shout slogans during a protest march marking an attack by security forces on an anti-government protest camp (Khaled Abdullah Ali Al Mahdi/Courtesy Reuters). Protesters shout slogans during a protest march marking an attack by security forces on an anti-government protest camp (Khaled Abdullah Ali Al Mahdi/Courtesy Reuters).

Alexandra Gibb and Cameron Tulk, “A Drone Field Guide,” Canadian International Council, May 31, 2012.

Ashton B. Carter, Speech to the American Enterprise Institute, May 30, 2012.

Q: Since 9/11, as you talk about this transition, there’s been a lot of money poured into ISR resources, for obvious reason. Can you walk us through what the Pentagon’s plan is for reconciling the ISR forces of the future, given the fact that we’ve fielded so many quick- reaction systems that are maintenance-needy and unique and whatnot?

And also, at what point, if you haven’t already, will you start shifting funds from the current ISR programs we know of today toward new sensors and/or new platforms maybe that can penetrate and such that we need for the future?

CARTER: What you’re calling a shift, has begun; actually began a couple years ago. And I’m limited in what we say about our future ISR capabilities, but trust me that we’re investing in the future.

With respect to the ones — you’re so right — that we put together quickly, under the pressure of combat, and which have been so amazingly successful, they do pose a managerial issue for us after the war because they were not essentially designed to last; they don’t necessarily have all the features that we wanted in a force that will be an enduring part of the force.

So, for the Predator/Reapers — the MQ-1s and MQ-9s, for example — the Air Force has had to work through a very complicated process. We do intend to make them an enduring part of the Air Force’s force structure, but we had to figure out where — how to do that. It wasn’t just the airframes; it’s how to crew them over time, how to train the crews, where to put the crews and so forth. Likewise for the Liberty fleet. Liberty fleet also a very much of a quick reaction-type of fleet. These are the little turbo props with a lot of ISR SIGINT and so forth on them, also essential, and we are going to keep a portion of that fleet.

There will be things that we built up for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that are not worth keeping in the force structure because they’ll be outdated or they’re not suited to more contested air environments.

Afghanistan is obviously not a contested air environment. You can just fly around and do what you want. And that won’t be the case everywhere in the world. So that’s an example of a big transition in the Air Force.

And by the way, it has the manned to unmanned transition aspect to it also. So there are a lot of difficult adjustments going on here at the same time.

Sudarsan Raghavan, “In Yemen, U.S. airstrikes breed anger and sympathy for al-Qaeda,” Washington Post, May 30, 2012.

“Every time the American attacks increase, they increase the rage of the Yemeni people, especially in al-Qaeda-controlled areas,” said Mohammed al-Ahmadi, legal coordinator for Karama, a local human rights group. “The drones are killing al-Qaeda leaders, but they are also turning them into heroes.”

PBS Frontline, “Understanding Yemen’s al-Qaeda Threat,” Map 29, 2012.

Department of Defense News Briefing, May 29, 2012.

Q: George, has the Pentagon been given authorization to conduct drone strikes on suspected terrorists even if they don’t have an actual name, as they have been in Yemen? Have they been given that authorization in other parts of the world? And if not, what is so specific about Yemen to have that authorization there?

LITTLE: The use of these weapons is something I’m not going to get into the particulars on. But I can tell you that they’re extremely precise, they’re lawful, and they’re extremely effective. And that is something that we’re going to continue to try to make sure we ensure happens; that they are precise, that they operate within the confines of American law and policy and that they are effective. When it comes to Yemen, I wouldn’t get into the particulars of our CT operations. But we’re working closely with the Yemenis to pursue the CT (sic) threat and to try to thwart it, especially from AQAP.

Q: Can I follow up on that? What’s the justification — you say they’re precise, but there seems to be absolutely no question that civilians do get killed in these strikes. So what’s the justification in the department’s mind, in the administration’s mind for this type of killing of civilians?

LITTLE: Well, again, I have to operate within certain parameters here, Barbara. But I would take very strong issue with any suggestion that these systems result in widespread civilian casualties.

Q: Well, I didn’t use the word widespread, of course. But the point is now it — I mean, it’s out in the open from many, many government officials, including Mr. Brennan at the White House that these strikes occur. And yet the administration continues to say that the number of civilian casualties are small, if at all. But it doesn’t seem to hold water. So –

LITTLE: I don’t know what you’re comparing, but I can assure you that the number of civilian casualties is very, very low.

Q: (Inaudible) — can you describe what you mean by that? Or you’re — in Pakistan and Yemen, where these strikes are now — and Afghanistan, where these strikes are now public knowledge, acknowledged by the White House, can you describe what the level of civilian casualties is, especially in Yemen?

LITTLE: The specifics I can’t get into. But I can provide you and the American public assurances that we take every step possible to avoid civilian casualties in all of our operations, military and counterterrorism alike. 

Q: But you don’t have boots on the ground, though, in Yemen. How — many people might wonder — (off mic) — that the level of civilian casualties — people might just be curious how the government can come to that statement.

LITTLE: Again, without getting into particulars about sources or methods or intelligence operations, we have very good means of assessing the extent to which our weapons platforms for military or CT operations result in civilian casualties. And we’re very confident that the number is very low. 

Daniel Klaidman, “Drones: How Obama Learned to Kill,” Newsweek, May 28, 2012.

ABC News, “‘This Week’ Transcript: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta,” May 27, 2012.

TAPPER: President Obama recently said that — recently told John Brennan, his counterterrorism adviser at the White House that he wanted a little bit more transparency when it comes to drones, which are the – is one of the approaches that you’re alluding to in Yemen.

And “The Times of London” reported last week that the civilian casualties in Yemen as a result of drone strikes have, quote, “emboldened Al Qaeda.”

Is there not a serious risk that this approach to counterterrorism, because of its imprecision, because of its civilian casualties, is creating more enemy than it is killing?

PANETTA: First and foremost, I think this is one of the most precise weapons that we have in our arsenal. Number two, what is our responsibility here? Our responsibility is to defend and protect the United States of America.

And using the operations that we have, using the systems that we have, using the weapons that we have, is absolutely essential to our ability to defend Americans. That’s what counts, and that’s what we’re doing.

(3PA: You will note that the secretary of defense in no way answers the question posed.)

Ken Dilanian and Rebecca Keegan, “Hollywood a Longtime Friend of the CIA,” Los Angeles Times, May 26, 2012.

“These are smart people,” said Michael Frost Beckner, who wrote and produced “The Agency.” “They have their agenda in mind, and if you’re serving their agenda, they play ball with you.”

One episode in the series, which aired for two seasons, featured the CIA firing a Hellfire missile from a Predator drone at a terrorist in Pakistan, a relative rarity at the time. A few weeks later, Beckner recalled, a CIA drone strike occurred and made headlines.

“The Hellfire missile thing, they suggested that,” Beckner said. “I didn’t come up with this stuff. I think they were doing a public opinion poll by virtue of giving me some good ideas.”

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