Foreign Policy: So What If Iran Has A U.S. Drone?

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A military truck carries the long-range drone, dubbed 'Karar', during an annual military parade which marks Iran's eight-year war with Iraq, in the capital Tehran on Sept. 22, 2010. i i

hide captionA military truck carries the long-range drone, dubbed 'Karar', during an annual military parade which marks Iran's eight-year war with Iraq, in the capital Tehran on Sept. 22, 2010.

Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images
A military truck carries the long-range drone, dubbed 'Karar', during an annual military parade which marks Iran's eight-year war with Iraq, in the capital Tehran on Sept. 22, 2010.

A military truck carries the long-range drone, dubbed 'Karar', during an annual military parade which marks Iran's eight-year war with Iraq, in the capital Tehran on Sept. 22, 2010.

Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

Read Another Opinion On Iran

Micah Zenko is a fellow in the Council on Foreign Relations.

On May 1, 1960, an American U-2 surveillance plane was downed by a SA-2 surface-to-air missile over the Sverdlovsk area of the Soviet Union. The U-2's mission — code-named Operation Grand Slam — was to photograph Soviet ballistic missile sites to inform the missile-gap debate raging in Washington. Though Grand Slam was the 24th deep-penetration flight over Soviet territory in four years, and CIA analysts warned of improvements in Soviet air-defense radars and missiles, the risks were deemed worth taking. As Secretary of State Christian Herter had noted in a plea to President Dwight Eisenhower to resume the U-2 flights: "The intelligence objective outweighs the danger of getting trapped."

Is history repeating itself? On Thursday, Iranian state television showed two men in military uniforms running their hands across the swept-wing frame of what the broadcast claimed was an RQ-170 Sentinel drone. An unnamed U.S. official said with "high confidence" that the drone displayed was the Sentinel that had gone missing 140 miles inside of Iran. (Only days earlier, a senior official had claimed: "The Iranians have a pile of rubble and are trying to figure what they have.") Several officials have acknowledged that the drone was under CIA control on an intelligence collection mission inside Iran.

It is understandable that an event with headlines that include the words "Iran," "drone," and "nuclear" generate a great deal of attention. Yet, for all the bytes and ink expended in discussing the downed Sentinel drone, it is neither surprising nor particularly revealing. As was true in 1960, the benefits of spying on Iran outweigh the dangers of the program being revealed or a downed aircraft, and are what Americans should expect from the $55 billion spent last year on national intelligence. To understand why this downed drone is such an ordinary event requires an understanding the day-to-day process of the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC).

Here's how it works. Senior policymakers provide tasking guidance to the IC through the National Intelligence Priorities Framework (NIPF), which is the "sole mechanism for establishing national intelligence priorities," according to an Office of the Directorate of National Intelligence (ODNI) directive. The NIPF process is coordinated by the ODNI, and results in a matrix listing the intelligence priorities of policymakers based on topics covered at National Security Council meetings and discussions with cabinet officials. The NIPF is updated every six months and signed by the president. As was described to me recently, the matrix consists of some 30 issues of concern for collection ranked in horizontal bands, running from A (most important) to C (least important), with some 180 state and non-state groups listed on the vertical axis. Finally, the matrix is color-coded based on the degree of current priority. After the ranking, the matrix is then translated into specific guidance from the DNI to senior IC managers for allocating collection and analytical resources.

Though the NIPF is highly classified, it is likely that there is no higher priority intelligence target than Iran's nuclear program, ballistic-missile sites, and air-defense system. Given that the Sentinel was reportedly on a CIA mission, there is certainly a presidential memoranda of notification (or several) that broadly authorizes the covert collection efforts in Iran. Moreover, assuredly the Senate and House intelligence committees have been briefed often and thoroughly about the CIA's use of the Sentinel over Iran.

Since Iran is among the most important intelligence collection priority, it would only make sense for the United States to utilize its most advanced capabilities, just as the U-2 spy plane was a half-century ago. The United States has reportedly been flying drones of various capabilities and missions over Iran since as early as April 2004, some of which Iranians believed to be UFOs. The following year, Iran protested the drone flights to the United States through Swiss diplomatic channels, and via letters to the U.N. Security Council, demanding "an end to such unlawful acts." The RQ-170 Sentinel drone itself, pictures of which were first published in 2007, had flown from Afghan airbases over Iran "for years," according to the Associated Press. (Of course, Iran also flies surveillance drones against U.S. military assets, as demonstrated in this grainy video of the USS Ronald Reagan.)

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