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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The CIA is running a covert program using Predator drones - unmanned, remotely-controlled planes - to kill terrorist suspects in Pakistan. This program has expanded under the Obama administration, but it was created by the Bush administration after 9/11, when legal changes were made to say that these targeted killings were not assassinations, they were an extension of combat in a global war on terror.

My guest, Jane Mayer, writes about the secret program in the current edition of the New Yorker. She covers politics and national security for the magazine. She says there's good news and bad news about the Predator drones. The CIA says they've killed more than half of the 20 most wanted al-Qaida terrorist suspects. But the secret drone program raises a lot of ethical and practical questions about how we are fighting terror suspects in Pakistan. Mayer's article is about those questions.

Jane Mayer, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Your article is framed by a very perplexing question. I'm going to ask you to set up the question you've asked in your article.

Ms. JANE MAYER (The New Yorker): Well, I was intrigued this past summer when there was so much upset over revelations that the CIA had considered a targeted killing program during the Bush years, where they were going to have hit squads roaming the world, killing terrorists. And that program didn't actually go into existence, but just the idea of it created a firestorm when at exactly the precise - the same time the CIA actually has in existence a targeted killing program, but it's one that uses unmanned, aerial drones to kill terrorists around the world, and nobody seems to mind. So my question was: Why are we so upset if people do it and not upset when unmanned drones do it?

GROSS: Now, the CIA secret program that got people so upset over the summer, when it was revealed, one of the problems with that was that there was no oversight. It was kept secret from Congress. What about oversight in the unmanned drone program?

Ms. MAYER: Well, I think there is congressional buy-in to this program. I talked to a number of people on the Senate and House intelligence committees who certainly know about this program, and they support it. So in that sense, there's more oversight, but one of the things that really interested me was that the program - it's very unusual that the CIA is killing people at all because usually, it's the military that kills people. And because the program is covert, it's invisible to the United States.

The government won't talk about it. They won't say who's in charge of it. They won't say who pulls the trigger. They won't say who's on the target list. They won't say how you get on the target list. They won't say where the battlefield is, where it's okay to kill people, and they don't reveal the names or numbers of the people that they've killed and wounded. So it's in many ways a secret war.

GROSS: And you say this push-button war represents a radically new and geographically unbounded use of state-sanctioned legal force. What do you mean there?

Ms. MAYER: Well, what's interesting to me is just that before September 11th, 2001, the United States was on the record as opposing targeted killing, by Israel at that point, as something that is assassination. And assassination is, under our laws, illegal. But after September 11th, we just changed our mood about this and actually set up our own targeted killing program. And what I mean about geographically unbounded is that under the - it seems that under the CIA's rules, they can target a terror suspect virtually anywhere in the world, if they wanted to, and they say they can do it legally.

So you could kill a terrorist in Mexico City, or you could kill somebody on the streets of London, and you could do it with an aerial drone legally, according to their interpretation of the law. So the world is the battlefield, and combatants are on a list that we can't really see, but they have to be people who we consider threatening America's defense.

GROSS: So there's two separate drone programs, two separate programs that run these unmanned planes that shoot missiles. One's run by the military. The other's run by the CIA. What's the difference between these two drone programs?

Ms. MAYER: Well, you're right. There are two different programs, and the military one is pretty much an extension of conventional warfare. It's a program run by the military. It's out in the open. Reporters have been invited to see how the drone operators actually, you know, man the planes from - and they do so from military bases in Nevada, among other places, and those missiles are shot at enemies in places where U.S. troops are in combat. So it's really part of the combat zone. It's just like another kind of fighter jet, basically.

What I'm writing about here is the program that is different, that people really don't focus on very much, which is a secret program that the CIA runs. They have their own drones. They operate them out of northern Virginia, where the CIA's headquarters is, and the places where these drones are not in combat zones like Iraq and Afghanistan necessarily, though they do some of that there, too. But they can shoot them in places where the United States is not at war. Specifically where they've been shooting most of them recently has been in Pakistan, where of course Pakistan's an allied country, and we're not at war with Pakistan.

GROSS: Let's look at some of the people the CIA drone program has successfully targeted. The top person is probably Baitullah Mehsud, who was the head of the Pakistani Taliban. And the Pakistani government held him responsible for 80 percent of recent terrorist attacks inside Pakistan, including the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. So would you describe what you know of this hit and how it was done?

Ms. MAYER: Yeah, sure. Mehsud was killed on August 5th this past summer, and it really was a kind of a marvel because there was a drone hovering over his house in the tribal area of Pakistan - Waziristan - just in a completely impenetrable part of the world to U.S. troops and law enforcement, reporters. But this drone could just creep up and, unseen, hover over this house that was in Waziristan and send back live footage of Mehsud up on the roof of this house - it was actually his father-in-law's house - and Mehsud was kind of lounging around, catching the summer breeze on a hot night, and he was being tended to by a physician who was giving him some kind of medical drip because Mehsud, the terrorist, suffered from some ailments that required attention.

And so at the CIA, they could watch this, and they could see that he was spread out prone, which gave them even a better sort of target area. And once he was there, and they knew exactly who he was, and they were sure of it, they let a couple Hellfire missiles rip, and they tore into the rooftop. And by the time the hit was done, all that was left of Mehsud was his torso, and 11 people were killed along with him. And I think it's probably safe to say there weren't too many people in the West or at least in the Pakistani government who were lamenting this.

GROSS: And the other 11 people were his wife, his uncle, his mother- and father-in-law, a Taliban lieutenant and seven bodyguards.

Ms. MAYER: You know, it's actually - I think it's unclear whether the uncle was killed, but yes, the rest of them were.

GROSS: One thing just technically that confuses me, if the drone is hovering above Mehsud's house, how come Mehsud doesn't hear it?

Ms. MAYER: Well, it makes a buzzing sound, but not a very loud one. And if it's two miles up, that's pretty far away.

GROSS: Oh, I see.

Ms. MAYER: I mean, it truly is a technical marvel that it can also, because it has infrared cameras, it can hone in at night and see pretty clearly, so - and it can't be seen in the night sky. And if the cloud cover is right, and the weather condition's right, you really don't hear much of it, either.

GROSS: So where are the people who are actually deciding okay, drop the missiles?

Ms. MAYER: They are probably in America. They're probably in the suburbs of northern Virginia, actually, which is - and they can actually fly the drone from northern Virginia using remote controls that are kind of like the kinds of joysticks they use on computer games.

GROSS: So getting back to this hit on Baitullah Mehsud, who was the head of the Pakistani Taliban, there were not only 11 other people killed by this hit, but you write it took 16 separate missile strikes during the course of 14 months before actually getting Mehsud. So were a lot of people killed in the process of those other 16 missile strikes?

Ms. MAYER: Hundreds, hundreds of them, yeah, several hundred of them most likely, and we don't really not who they all were. And I'm sure many of them were also militants of various sorts and enemies of the Pakistani government and possibly, you know, harmful to U.S. troops that were stationed across the border in Afghanistan, as well.

But the question is: Is the United States now beginning to use this Predator program, this tremendous technological marvel, to start killing less and less important people just because we can? And it appears that what's going on is that we've made some kind of agreement with Pakistan in order to get them to buy into this program, where Pakistan actually nominates a number of the people who we are killing. They are people who Pakistan wants dead, and it's less certain that they are legitimate targets for the United States. But the target list seems to keep growing.

GROSS: So one of the questions you're raising is: Are the people who we're targeting legitimate targets? Are they worthy of, you know, a drone missile attack? Do you have any idea how the criteria is being created, like, who's creating the criteria for who makes a worthy drone missile attack?

Ms. MAYER: Well, I mean, one of the things that troubles critics of this program is that it's a secret program, the CIA's version of it is. And so we don't know really how you get onto their target list necessarily. We don't know if there's a way you can get yourself off that target list if there is a target on your back. So this all happens behind a black curtain, basically, and�

GROSS: Which on some level is no surprise. I mean, what are they going to do, like, broadcast who they're trying to attack before they attack them? I mean, you can't�

Ms. MAYER: Well, I mean, in many ways we do, though. Generally - I mean, what - I interviewed the political philosopher Michael Walzer, who is an expert in warfare and the ethics of warfare. He's written a very famous book, �Just and Unjust Wars,� and he is arguing strongly that basically when the government goes out and kills people, it needs to make clear who it's trying to kill, why it's trying to kill them and who it has killed. I mean, this is really - traditionally, there has to be transparency there so that you can hold the government accountable and make sure that it's not abusing power. And it's an important kind of check on something as terrifying as using lethal force.

So basically, if you look at the military's version of this program, the military actually has a list of 367 people who are its target list, and it can describe who these people are. And if you look at, say, the FBI, it has a most wanted list of criminal suspects, and they'll put out the name of them, and we even talk about how we'll pay huge bounties for some people. But in the CIA's version, the list seems to be growing, but none of us outside of the sort of the inner circle of people who have high clearances can know who's on the list.

GROSS: Now, another question you raise is about the role of private contractors in the process of using these drones, these unmanned planes that shoot missiles. What is the role of private contractors?

Ms. MAYER: Well, they actually - the CIA uses a lot of private firms now to do various jobs that, for either budgetary reasons or expertise reasons, they can't do. So they actually - some of the pilots of these drones are private contractors, as are the people who load the bombs onto the drones over in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Those people actually work for a fairly controversial company, what used to be called Blackwater and is now called Z. And again, what's worrisome about this is just that private, for-profit companies are outside of the ordinary chain of command, for instance, that the military has. They're not legally liable the same way that people who work for the military are, and it's a little bit less clear who's responsible when something goes wrong.

GROSS: You write that even though these drones are remote control that the pilots have a high rate of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Ms. MAYER: Yeah, isn't that interesting? You would think that the job is so kind of divorced from the impact of these missile strikes that it might not affect the pilots because the pilots are, after all, working from America. They're often on military bases out in the desert or the control room over at the CIA. And it - even so, apparently, I interviewed someone named Peter Singer, who's written a book about sort of robotic warfare, and he said that they suffer a lot of combat stress.

I mean, you push a button, you look at a screen, and it's really quite incredible. You see this cloud go up and a tiny little figure just sort of wiped off the face of the earth. And you don't feel it, you don't really hear it, but the person is dead. And I guess it still in many ways gets under the skin of the people who are the warriors in this kind of cubicle warfare.

GROSS: My guest is Jane Mayer. She writes about the CIA's secret Predator drone program in the current edition of The New Yorker. She covers politics and national security for the magazine. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Break)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Let's get back to our interview with Jane Mayer, who writes about the CIA's secret drone program in the current edition of The New Yorker. She covers politics and national security for the magazine.

The drones are unmanned, remotely controlled planes that are being used to target and kill terrorist suspects in Pakistan. The CIA says it has killed more than half of the top 20 al-Qaida suspects and many experts make the case that drones are a good alternative to troops on the ground.

But the program raises a lot of questions, including - who is doing the targeting and with what criteria? What about the innocent people who are being killed? And are these targeted killings assassinations?

Now, you write, and you mentioned earlier, that before 9/11 the U.S. denounced Israel's use of targeted killing against Palestinian terrorists. And you say the U.S. ambassador in Israel at the time, Martin Indyk, said the U.S. government is very clearly on the record as against targeted assassinations, they're extrajudicial killings, and we don't support that. But that changed after 9/11.

Did something happen legally to open the door to that kind of change to allow the targeted assassinations?

Ms. MAYER: Well, there certainly were legal changes that made it possible to say that this kind of killing is not assassination, it's just an extension of combat. And the legal change was we said terrorists are no longer criminals. They are combatants in a worldwide war and so killing them is part of warfare. And where's the battlefield? The battlefield is the globe. So we did change sort of the legal rationale. But basically what it did was it said something that we prohibited before was now okay.

GROSS: Now, what do you think the increasing use of drones says about how our military strategy is changing in Afghanistan and Pakistan?

Ms. MAYER: Well, I mean I think it, you know, the problem is it's a really difficult situation, obviously, in Afghanistan, Pakistan right now. It's hard for this government and it was hard for the Bush administration to know what to do about terrorists who are hiding out in the inaccessible parts of Pakistan and attacking over in Afghanistan as well. So the drone program kind of represents what looks like a great alternative to putting troops on the ground where American boys are going to - and girls are going to get killed.

It looks like maybe there's some kind of remote control way you could do this that wouldn't be so costly to us as a nation in terms of blood and treasure. And so it seemed - it exists as sort of this ideal alternative, you would think. But what I was trying to do in this piece was take a look at it and see, you know, is it really so ideal? And when you get up close and you take at what's going on in this program, there are a lot of aspects to it that are kind of scary.

GROSS: What scares you?

Ms. MAYER: Well, I think it's - my personal sense is you can't really go around the globe killing people as the United States government without igniting some kind of retaliation. I think you - once you start killing people on the other side of the world, you are going to, first of all, kill some of the wrong people, which this program has done.

They've killed a number of innocent people, and you know, women and children, and you then get members of their family wanting to avenge them, and you just basically also become morally insulated to a kind of a horrific thing that's going on, and eventually I think it's going to cause blowback, that basically that's been the experience historically.

GROSS: Now, some people are saying that if you rely on unmanned drones and you don't have troops, you don't get intelligence on the ground and it makes combating the war more difficult. Have you...

Ms. MAYER: Well, it's certainly true that you - in order for the drone program to be effective you need to have intelligence on the ground telling you who to target and whether they're, you know, for instance present at the time that you're trying to get them. So the whole - the program requires good on-the-ground intelligence. And so without that you, you know, the risk goes up that you will hit the wrong people.

GROSS: Now, I think it's fair to say that part of the reason why we're relying on drones in Pakistan is because a lot of the people who we're targeting -members of al-Qaida and the Taliban - are located in this no-man's-land in the tribal areas of Pakistan. We - it's just impossible to get there kind of, and you know, you're - probably your best hope of targeting them is through the air and through something like a drone. So how do you think the remote nature of where the targeted people are hiding is affecting what are strategy is there?

Ms. MAYER: Well, I think you're absolutely right. I mean and there's not the -the better option many of the experts I talk to generally is to try to capture terror suspects so that you can then interrogate them and learn about what they're trying to do and unravel any kind of plots before they're carried out.

And I tell the story about Saad bin Laden, who's the son of Osama, who there was a chance that they could've interrogated him early on, but instead they didn't take that chance back in the early days of the Bush administration and he wound up - according to NPR - being killed in a drone attack.

So you lose all the intelligence that he might've been able to give us. But in that area, the remote area of Pakistan that we're talking about, Waziristan, it's very hard for Pakistani troops, law enforcement, anybody else, to get in there and grab these people, so the drone is kind of a weapon of last resort in some ways.

GROSS: So you quote Leon Panetta, the head of the CIA, who you recently profiled in The New Yorker, you quote him as saying the Predator program is the only game in town. What does he mean?

Ms. MAYER: That's what - exactly. What's he's saying is we can't get these people any other way. It's the only game in town, and in fact the CIA is - I mean to give them their due, they have had a tremendous run of killing important al-Qaida figures. They say that more than half of the top 20 people that they've wanted to get a hold of they have now killed through using this program, mostly in the last year, really. So they've been knocking them off one by one and they feel pretty good about it for, you know, good reasons.

But at the same time, I think what is worth thinking about here is there's a tendency with a success like that to say, wow, if you can get, you know, more than half of the top 20 al-Qaida leaders, why don't we expand this and go for some other bad guys? And that's what we're seeing now.

GROSS: And how are you seeing that, like�

Ms. MAYER: Well, you're seeing it because the military has now added 50 Afghan drug lords to the list of people who they can target, so they're not necessarily just al-Qaida anymore. And in Pakistan the Pakistani government has nominated a number of extra targets who are people who are Pakistani enemies, and they're member of the Taliban, they're members of other various militant groups. The U.S. also wants to get other militants who are not necessarily al-Qaida.

So what began as a kind of a small exceptional program of using the most lethal force against the worst enemies that the United States has - al-Qaida - has now kind of dribbled out and it's becoming a bigger, fuzzier group of people we can get. And of course as that group grows larger, it raises more and more questions about whether this is really necessary. Is this really proportional?

These are the kind - the issues that are asked in international law about warfare are: Did we have to kill this person? Was there no chance you could capture them? Is the use of force proportional to the danger that that person caused the United States? How about - is the use of force justified in killing the other people around that person? There's almost always so-called collateral damage in these strikes.

If it's a low-level militant, are we justified in killing a number of bystanders that are killed with that person? These are very morally fraught complicated questions. And again, the process of who's making those decisions and how is hidden, as far as the CIA goes.

GROSS: And into that mix, I'd like to throw the question - are these unmanned attacks preventing a wider war which would cause more casualties, Americans and Afghanis and Pakistanis?

Ms. MAYER: Well, that's what certainly we would hope. I mean that by killing a few - yeah, they call it decapitating the leadership - maybe we can save American lives and Afghan and Pakistani lives - and avoid a larger war. But it's really unclear whether that's the effect of this program.

There's been an escalation of attacks in Pakistan by militant groups who didn't use to work together, who seemed to be kind of coalescing now against the Zardari government there, partly in anger at these drone attacks. So that the fear is that it may ignite some kind of backlash that will create worse problems. It remains to be seen, really. But it's an unsettling, disturbing form of warfare. It looks good on the surface. It doesn't look quite as good when you look closely.

GROSS: Well, along those lines, you raise the question, what is it like for people who know that there might be unmanned missile-loaded planes flying kind of invisibly overhead and spying on them?

Ms. MAYER: Well, I mean it's obviously disturbing for the people on the ground. But if they are our enemies, this is the kind of disturbing we want to do. I mean what's - one of the great ripple effects of the drone program is that it's so unnerves the terrorists that they basically stay in their houses all day. They only come out at night. They communicate with each other very - with great worry. They don't want to use cell phones for fear that the National Security Administration will pick them up.

It makes them turn on each other because they keep thinking that there are spies in their midst who are basically informing on them and that's how the drones figure out who to target. So all of that is if you want to try to disrupt terrorists in their nests, these are all great effects of the drone program.

But the problem is, of course, that the drones take out a number of innocent people or just make mistakes sometimes and you wind up killing, you know, the wrong people. And that actually happened even on Obama's first missile strike, which was during his third day in office.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jane Mayer and she covers politics and national security for The New Yorker. Her article on the current edition is about the risks of the CIA's covert drone program.

Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jane Mayer. She writes about politics and national security for The New Yorker and we're talking about her article in the current edition, which is about the risks of the CIA's covert drone program, and the drones are those unmanned planes that can shoot missiles at their targets.

Now, President Obama is trying to figure out what direction he wants to head in in terms of strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. How does the drone program, which you've just written about for The New Yorker, figure into the decisions he has to make?

Ms. MAYER: Well, it seems to offer an alternative in the view of some people. George Will, for instance, the conservative pundit, wrote a piece in the Washington Post suggesting that we should pull our troops out of Afghanistan and just fight the war against al-Qaida from remote control - from afar, off shores using things like - technology like drones and maybe some special forces to occasionally do an operation on the land.

But it seems that it might be kind of an appealing clean alternative to having our, you know, troops on the ground. So it's something that the Obama administration is thinking and apparently the vice president, Joe Biden, is seriously considering this as an alternative and favoring it.

GROSS: What questions do you hope President Obama is asking himself about the drones?

Ms. MAYER: I hope he's really thinking about whether or not they are doing more harm than good, because you could both decapitate al-Qaida where it's hiding out in Pakistan but weaken the Pakistani government by doing it. These drones are very unpopular in Pakistan and they seem to be turning the Pakistani population against the government there, which is no help to the United States. If anything we need to really try to stabilize Pakistan, and so you have to ask that question. I think you have to ask the question about whether or not these hit squads are transparent enough.

I mean, shouldn't the United States put out some information when it kills people? Shouldn't it say, well, we got so-and-so and this was a triumph, but we're really sorry we killed the following eight other people and we are going to be paying reparations to their families? I think it would seem, you know, I hope he's thinking about that kind of moral equation because this is projecting to the world a use of power that is really unusual for the United States.

GROSS: Now, you say that the Pakistani government is now putting some people on the list for targeted killing that the Pakistani government wants to see on the list, and that the United States is accepting some of those nominees, so to speak, in return for cooperation from the Pakistani government for the drone program. What are some of your concerns about Pakistani suggestions for targeted killing?

Ms. MAYER: I think the question is, are these our enemies or are these just Pakistan's enemies? Congress has passed the law saying we can use lethal force in this country to kill people who are part of al-Qaida or and had played a role in those 9/11 attacks, but the United States government is not authorized to start killing just people who Pakistan doesn't like. It's - or any other country doesn't like. It really - they're using our technology and our personnel to kill people who may just be political enemies of the Pakistani government, that's where it gets troubling.

GROSS: The technology in these remote controlled unmanned planes is becoming more and more incredible. In your research on the drone program, what surprised you most about our technological capabilities and what that might mean for the future of war?

Ms. MAYER: Well, I think one of the weirdest things - that's actually being developed right now is something called Nano-drones which are - they're basically like little killer bees that can follow their prey, even going in through an open window. And they are about two and half inches long and they are being developed. And there are actually also drones that they're developing that are kind of aerial tankers that are going to allow these drones to refuel without ever landing. So, there's going to be sort of perpetual drone operations up in the air around the world.

My sense is that this kind of technology, there's going to be no turning back. We are really going to a whole new phase of warfare here. And I guess what I wonder about is, you know, what are the rules for the road for this kind of thing? Because it really is a new frontier.

GROSS: Is there anybody that you're aware of in Congress or in the Obama administration who is challenging the way we are currently using drones?

Ms. MAYER: You know, right now, I think Congress is really infatuated with this technology. And you can see why, I mean it is a marvel. But the place where people are asking questions are in the human rights community, the international lawyers, the U.N.,. There are a number of sort of political philosophers asking questions, such as, you know, if there's no - if we can't feel the impact of the people that we're killing and we can't see them, and none of our own people at risk, does this somehow make it easier to just be in a perpetual state of war because there's no seeming cost to us? These are the kinds of questions that people are asking.

GROSS: So, when you look at the choices facing President Obama now, what are some of your thoughts?

Ms. MAYER: You know, my worry is - and I have great sympathy for them in many ways, that they just don't have good choices right now. And I interviewed Bruce Riedel, who is a former CIA officer who has been advising the Obama administration from the outside on Afghanistan and Pakistan. And he basically says, you know, it's a good question: Are these drones helping or hurting? They seem to be doing both at the same time. But the reason that the government's using them is obvious, he says, they don't have any other choices.

GROSS: Jane Mayer, thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. MAYER: Terry, it's always great to be with you, thanks for having me.

GROSS: Jane Mayer writes about the CIA's secret Predator drone program in the current edition of the New Yorker. She covers politics and national security for the magazine. This is FRESH AIR.

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