National Security

CIA, Military Rely Heavily On Predator Drones

  • Playlist
  • Download
  • Embed
    <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

One issue that Defense Secretary Gates has been pressed on during his global tour, has been drones. Those are unmanned aircraft used to target suspected terrorists along Pakistan's border. A critical U.N. report raised questions about a weapon that is a key part of U.S. war fighting. Peter Singer, of the Brookings Institution, tells Deborah Amos that Predadors are being used more and more.


One issue that Secretary Gates has been pressed on during his tour is drones: unmanned aircraft used to target suspected terrorists along Pakistan's border. A critical U.N. report raised questions about a weapon that's a key part of U.S. war fighting.

For analysis, we reached Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution, an expert on military technology.

Good morning.

Mr. PETER SINGER (The Brookings Institution): Good morning.

AMOS: The U.N. issued a report last week taking issue with the CIA's operation of drones. They called the practice a vaguely defined license to kill. On his trip, Secretary Gates said that the CIA and the U.S. military are fully accountable to Congress in all their operations. What do you make of those comments?

Mr. SINGER: Well, it's interesting, because there is a distinct difference between the manner in which the military's operating in, which is overtly, and the manner in which the CIA is operating, which is covert. So the military's quite open about what it's doing with these systems, how many it's buying, rules of engagement questions, and most importantly, relevant to this U.N. report, if something goes wrong, the military has a defined chain of command to figure out accountability.

On the CIA side, though, it's a lot like those old Joe Isuzu commercials: Just trust us. The spokespersons will say we can't confirm or deny what we're doing, but just trust us, anyway. And so, you know, it's interesting that Gates is being asked to, in a sense, explain what others are doing, because they won't.

AMOS: But he put the two of them together, the CIA and the U.S. military. Is he looking for legal cover?

Mr. SINGER: I think Gates is playing the role of a good soldier here. At the end of the day, both agencies are executive agencies, and they do report to Congress. The concern with this technology is that it's a military-like technology, and more importantly, they're using it on a military scale. We've carried out more than 140 of these airstrikes using unmanned systems into Pakistan.

And to put that into context, it's about three times the number of airstrikes that we did with manned bombers during the opening round of the Kosovo War. But because it's not being conducted by the military, Congress hasn't had the same kind of insight into it, hasn't had the same kind of authorization. And so there is a distinct difference between the two.

AMOS: It has been reported that there are now more service members training to become a drone pilot - which essentially means you're watching a computer and flying by joystick - than those training to fly traditional warplanes. What does that say about the U.S. reliance on drones?

Mr. SINGER: We're experiencing a revolution in technology right now. We've gone from using a handful of these systems when our forces invaded Iraq, to now we have over 7,000 in the air. Who should be able to use it? Which is really what this debate is about. Should the Predator be a military technology, or is it something that you want, you know, intelligence agencies using? Or Department of Homeland Security also has its own systems like this. We're going through a massive change right now that raises a lot of questions we need to figure out.

AMOS: It's been reported that the Obama administration has employed more drones than the Bush administration. So how did they measure success?

Mr. SINGER: That, I think, is the fundamental question here. By one measure of success, they've been very effective. We've killed over 20 top terrorist and militant leaders with these strikes. But when you put it in a longer term context, there may be some challenges here, blow-back effects so to speak, where these same strikes have created a massive amount of anger on the ground. We've seen everything from protests to - there was even a rock song in Pakistan that - its lyrics talked about how America doesn't fight with honor. And so, you know, the concern here is what happens when you have Pakistani teenagers vibing to that kind of music? Are we getting very good at, you know, whacking the leaders, but then new followers join in and the leaders pop up again?

AMOS: You've written a book about military technology. You know a lot about drones. At the end of the day, are you in favor of using drones?

Mr. SINGER: It's a lot like asking: Are you in favor of using a computer or in favor of using an airplane? The real question is not whether to use it, it's how to use it. It's the questions of figuring out when it makes sense to carry out that strike against a high value target, and when it makes sense to go, you know what? The blow-back effect against going after this low-level guy is not worth it. Those are the fundamental questions here that surround us.

AMOS: Thank you very much.

Mr. SINGER: Thanks again for having me.

AMOS: Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution is author of "Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century."

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from