STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Of all the things that have changed since the 9/11 attacks, one of the most dramatic is in the skies. A few weeks after 9/11, an unmanned aircraft - a drone - was used to fire a missile in Afghanistan, the first known drone strike. Today, drones fly over Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere. Here's NPR's Tom Bowman.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: About 200 meters outside the compound.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: The Air Force students are practicing for the kill. They sit at terminals watching grainy images from a drone video feed. Thousands of feet below at a desert training range, role players portray civilians and fighters. The students must find the proper target, then with a push of a button, unleash a simulated airstrike.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: All right, looks good. In three, two, one - rifle. Missile away.
BOWMAN: This new world of aerial combat began in the early morning hours of October 7, 2001. Lieutenant General Dave Deptula was inside a command center, also watching a drone video. It showed Taliban leader Mullah Omar and his top aides outside Kandahar, Afghanistan.
DAVE DEPTULA: They left the compound, and then they move into a series of very small adobe huts.
BOWMAN: The U.S. decided not to use a 1,000-pound bomb to destroy the buildings and potentially kill innocents, so they turned to a predator drone with tail number 3034. Remember that number. It carries a 100-pound missile. The CIA took control and fired at an empty truck.
DEPTULA: The truck was destroyed and Mullah Omar, and everybody inside the building came out. And it was like kicking an ant hill.
BOWMAN: General Deptula says it was a missed opportunity. But the predator, he says, soon proved itself beyond measure. Pilots were no longer in danger over enemy territory. The smaller drone missiles reduce the chances of civilian casualties. And the commanders had constant surveillance over the massive and austere landscape of Afghanistan.
DEPTULA: It was an enormous increase, particularly operating in a country that was so remote that getting access to some of the operating locations that the Taliban were at simply wouldn't have been possible, even introducing men on the ground.
BOWMAN: Those new drones, just a handful, helped bring a quick end to the Taliban government in just two months. Now there are several hundred armed drones, and the Air Force is training more drone pilots than fighter or bomber pilots. That means the drone has become an easy tool to use in counter-terror operations, far from places like Afghanistan, maybe too easy.
ROSA BROOKS: What it does end up doing is sort of lowering the threshold for us to decide to spy on somebody or use force.
BOWMAN: That's Rosa Brooks, a former top Pentagon official, who wrote the book "How Everything Became War And The Military Became Everything." Brooks says a president can easily choose a drone strike and not risk any American casualties. And when the CIA's involved, it's all secret.
BROOKS: What becomes troubling is when you're looking at situations, whether it's Libya or Yemen or Pakistan, where officially we may be denying that we have any involvement. But, in fact, we are not only involved, we are carrying out lethal strikes.
BOWMAN: Lethal strikes that are growing. The Bush administration unleashed dozens of drone strikes. President Obama has authorized hundreds. The administration estimates as many as 116 civilians were killed in these strikes outside the war zones of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Some analysts say the number is far higher.
The Obama administration recently declassified documents about its use of drone strikes following a federal court order that sided with a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU said the documents don't provide much clarity about the standards the government uses before it orders an airstrike. That concerns defense analysts like Ben FitzGerald with the Center for a New American Security. He says dozens of other countries are now turning to drones and could use them in secret airstrikes, just like the U.S. FitzGerald says the U.S. should come up with clear and open guidelines, so it can be a model to other nations.
BEN FITZGERALD: To the extent that we can push this through the Department of Defense and have all of the oversights that we expect in a DOD context, I think that will send a much better message to the international community.
BOWMAN: Take it away from the CIA, only have the Pentagon run these things.
FITZGERALD: I think that that would be a much more helpful approach, yes.
BOWMAN: For his part, General Deptula, who was present for the first armed-drone strike, says the congressional intelligence committees carefully scrutinize the CIA drone program.
DEPTULA: It's a ridiculous argument. Welcome to the world of war. Ever since mankind has been in conflict with one another, there have been technological advances on one side to attempt to gain an advantage on the other side. We're using these weapon systems under the most excruciating scrutiny and fully in compliance with the laws of armed conflict.
BOWMAN: While the debate over their use continues, what's clear is the drones are here to stay. At the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum, not far from Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, curator Roger Connor points to a gangly aircraft hanging from the ceiling. A small black missile is perched under a wing.
ROGER CONNOR: And it's one of the more famous predators in the fleet. At the start of our operations in Afghanistan in October of 2001, this particular aircraft became the first predator drone to fire a Hellfire missile.
BOWMAN: Tail number 3034, now a piece of history. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.