Civil Liberties  
comments_image Comments

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Drones

They're a controversial centerpiece of Obama's counterterrorism policy, but domestic use of drones for crime-fighting is raising concerns about privacy, ethics and safety.

This story originally appeared at ProPublicaon May 31, 2012.

Everyone is talking about drones. Also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or UAVs, remote-piloted aircrafts have become a  controversial centerpiece of the Obama administration's counter-terrorism strategy. Domestically, their surveillance power is being hyped for everything from  fighting crime to  monitoring hurricanes or  spawning salmon. Meanwhile, concerns are cropping up about privacy, ethics and safety. ProPublica has rounded up some of the best coverage of drones to get you oriented. Did we miss anything?  Let us know.

A Little History

The idea of unmanned flight had been around for decades, but it was in the 1990s, thanks to advances in GPS and computing, that the possibilities for drones really took off, as the New Yorker recently recounted. While hobbyists and researchers looked for uses for automated, airborne cameras, the military became the driving force behind drone developments. (This  history from the Washington Post has more details) According to the Congressional Research Service, the military's cache of U.A.V.'s has grown from just a handful in 2001 to  more than 7,000 today. This  New York Times graphic shows the variety of drones currently employed by the military — from the famous missile-launching Predator to tiny prototypes shaped like hummingbirds.

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?

Updated 5/31

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. The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which  also tracks drone strikes , consistently documents higher numbers of civilian deaths — for Pakistan in 2011, at least 75. 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 — 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.

See more stories tagged with: