MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THING CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
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And I'm Melissa Block.
The killing of an al-Qaeda operative in Pakistan is raising new questions about the CIA-operated Predator drone. The operative, Haitham al-Yemeni, was reported hit nine days ago. He's one of only a small number of terror suspects known to have been killed by Predators firing Hellfire missiles. Experts say they're deadly accurate and great at hitting targets that don't stay put for long. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports.
MARY LOUISE KELLY reporting:
The Predator, a type of unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, has been used since the early '90s for surveillance, but it's relatively recently that the CIA started arming them with missiles. The most spectacular of the handful of known incidents came in November 2002 in Yemen. The CIA used the Predator to take out six suspected terrorists driving through the Yemeni desert. John Pike, director of the defense research group GlobalSecurity.org, explains the operation.
Mr. JOHN PIKE (Director, GlobalSecurity.org): The way that the armed Predator works is that a television camera in the nose of the unmanned aircraft will spot a target, a laser designator on the UAV will be pointed at the target and a Hellfire laser-seeking missile will be fired and home in on the spot, destroying the target, in this case, a vehicle.
KELLY: All this can be done by remote control by an operator hundreds of miles away. Pike points out the Predator's other attractions: No American lives are risked, it's very precise and it can hover for hours, waiting for a terrorist target to pop his head up.
Mr. PIKE: Rather than having to send out an airplane to attack a target, you can have a number of these loitering around on the off chance that a target does emerge. When the target does emerge, it's going to be fleeting. This gives you an ability to attack it very quickly if you have adequate intelligence.
KELLY: And the Predator has political advantages, too.
Mr. STEVEN SIMON (Former Senior Director for Transnational Threats, National Security Council): The Predator is an ideal weapon for these kind of situations.
KELLY: Steven Simon was senior director for transnational threats on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration.
Mr. SIMON: You can act in a way that is at least arguably deniable. You insulate the host government from involvement. So it's really--you know, it's a good weapon.
KELLY: Simon says the Predator is especially useful in a country like Pakistan, where political sensitivities mean US military and intelligence operations must be kept quiet. National security adviser Stephen Hadley alluded to those concerns yesterday on CNN when he dodged a question about whether Pakistan has actually granted the US permission to fly over its territory and fire missiles at suspected terrorists.
(Soundbite of CNN broadcast)
Mr. STEPHEN HADLEY (National Security Adviser): Look, the relationships we have are very sensitive. They are a matter of domestic politics to these countries, and it would not help our effort against terror to be talking about them publicly about these relationships.
KELLY: For all its advantages, the Predator is not a perfect weapon. Steven Simon points out it's not nearly so useful in densely populated areas. In the cities of Iraq, not to mention Western Europe, the Predator would not be the weapon of choice. Simon believes it's best to think of it as, quote, "just one arrow in the US quiver."
Still, it's an arrow the Bush administration clearly feels is worth collecting. The Pentagon plans to buy 35 new Predators and 24 new Predator B's, a bigger more lethal version, in the next five years. Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.