This February, Congress cleared the way for far more widespread use of drones by businesses, scientists, police and still unknown others. The Federal Aviation Administration will release a comprehensive set of rules on drones by 2015.
The Shadow Drone War: Obama's Open Secret
As the ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, the Obama administration has escalated a mostly covert air war through clandestine bases in the U.S. and other countries. Just this week, the administration's drone-driven national security policy was documented in this book excerpt by Newsweek reporter Daniel Klaidman and a New York Times article.
Both the CIA and military use drones for "targeted killings" of terrorist leaders. The strikes have been an awkward open secret, remaining officially classified while government officials mention them repeatedly. Obama admitted the program's existence in an online chat in February, and his counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan, gave a speech last month laying out the administration's legal and ethical case for drone strikes.
The crux of it is that they are a precise and efficient form of warfare. Piloted from thousands of miles away (here's an account from a base outside Las Vegas), they don't put U.S. troops at risk, and, by the government's count, harm few civilians.
How Many Civilians Do Drone Strikes Kill?
Statistics are hard to nail down. The Long War Journal and the New America Foundation track strikes and militant and civilian deaths, drawing mainly on media reports with the caveat that they can't always be verified. The Long War Journal tallied 30 civilian deaths in Pakistan in 2011. Obama administration officials, the New York Times reported this week, have said that such deaths are few or in the "single digits."
But the Times, citing "counterterrorism officials," also reported that the U.S. classifies all military-age men in a drone strike zone to be militants, unless their innocence is proven after the attack. If that's true, it raises questions about the government statistics on civilian casualties. One State Department official told the Times that the CIA might be overzealous in defining strike targets 2014 he told them that "the joke was that when the C.I.A. sees 'three guys doing jumping jacks,' the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp.
What About the Political Fallout?
The U.S. has also used airstrikes to side-step legal arguments about the boundaries of the campaign against al Qaeda. Both Bush and Obama administration officials have argued that Congress' September 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force extends to al Qaeda operatives in any country, with or without the consent of local governments.
Drone strikes are extremely unpopular in the countries where they're deployed. They've led to tense diplomatic maneuvers with Pakistan, and protests and radicalization in Yemen. Iraqis have also protested the State Department's use of surveillance drones in their country.