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Drones are ‘legally blind’ so why do we rely on them? (Includes first-hand account)

Hoping to dispel many of the myths surrounding drones, Cockburn has written a new book, “Kill Chain: Drones and the Rise of High-Tech Assassins.” Addressing a packed audience at Edinburgh’s Book Festival held yearly in August, Cockburn argues that people tend to endow the military and political officials responsible for running the U.S. drone program with powers “that they don’t warrant.” In fact, he says, that they’re not anywhere as competent as the hype would lead people to expect. Thanks to a Pentagon inquiry of a bungled drone attack in Afghanistan in 2010, we now have an unexpurgated transcript of conversations between officers, pilots and targeters stationed at command centers in Florida, Afghanistan and Nevada (where most drone operations are carried out) as they try to make up their minds whether to launch a strike on what appears to be a convoy of militants traveling along a desert road. The officers can’t decide whether the individuals they’re seeing in the trucks are armed or not. The possibility that some of the passengers might be children is discounted. After several minutes of expletive-riddled exchanges, an order is issued to go ahead. Twenty-three Afghanis were killed including women and children. The victims proved to be villagers on their way to Kabul to find work. None of them was armed. What the officers believed were rifles, based on the heat they were emitting, turned out to be turkeys the villagers were bringing as gifts to relatives.

In this instance, the Predator was hovering three miles overhead and because it was night, it had to rely on infrared radiation to determine whether the trucks represented a legitimate target or not. “People have the impression from Hollywood movies that the visuals (from drones) are extremely accurate,” Cockburn says, “but in fact, this isn’t the case, especially at night. The visual acuity of drones is 20/200 which in the United States meets the definition of legally blind.”

Fuzzy images are only one part of the problem. Faulty intelligence is also to blame for tragedies like these. Pilots also have to contend with another challenge: latency. “The people manning the drones are divorced from reality for another reason apart from the physical distance from the target; there is a two-to-five second delay from the time the drone sends a video to Nevada via satellite and landline and a similar delay in transmitting the order to strike. “So what they’re looking at is out of date.” Launching a drone strike may resemble a video game, Cockburn says: “It’s the same mentality, but with very real effects.”

Moreover, the pilots, targeters and officers try to fit what they’re seeing (or what they think they’re seeing) through the lens of preconceived patterns. In other words, if you expect to find jihadists riding around in a truck then you’re more likely to see jihadists; the tendency is to construe information coming from the drone in such a way as to justify a strike.

The media has recently begun to give attention to the psychological wear and tear on the drone pilots, many of whom suffer from emotional disorders seen in their airborne counterparts. The most vexing problem Cockburn found in the pilots and targeters he interviewed, though, is mainly boredom. “They’re waiting for something to happen for days on end, staring at a desert road or a house.” And as it becomes increasingly difficult to recruit drone pilots, shifts have become longer for those remaining on duty, too. Moreover, pilots are at risk for disorientation much like a jetlagged traveler. “You’re staring at a road in Afghanistan one minute and the next you’re given orders to switch to a target in the mountains of Yemen.”

Eighteen countries currently employ drones; in addition to the U.S., they’re widely used by the UK, Israel, Russia and China. Even the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah has been known to use rudimentary drones; while there’s some evidence that their drones take pictures, they seem mostly meant to make noise and harass Israelis. The commotion that a drone makes has been described as similar to that produced by a very loud lawnmower.
The war on ISIS is really a drone war, Cockburn says, observing that a third of the strikes on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is being carried out by drones. Even when fighter jets are used to bomb ISIS installations and weaponry, they frequently rely on drones to guide the bomb to its target.

During the Bush administration, strikes where there was a risk of killing thirty people or less were decided by the officer in charge of the operation; if, however, there was a risk of killing more than thirty the strike had to be approved by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld although in the fifty cases that were brought to his attention he never once refused his approval.

Most drone strikes are signature strikes – “where you don’t know who’s there, but you know what they’re supposed to look like.” Rarer are the so-called personality strikes where a particular individual is targeted; these strikes must be approved by the president. The strike that killed the fiery Islamic preacher Anwar al-Alawaki in Yemen in 2011 was a personality strike. “It turns out that I’m good at killing people,” President Obama was reported to have said at the time. “Who would have believed it?” Alawaki’s sixteen-year old son was subsequently killed in a drone strike in Yemen – by mistake.

“Why is this happening?” Cockburn doesn’t believe that the increasing reliance on drones is entirely due to the faith in a technology and the illusory sense that war can be fought remotely without any loss of American lives. Greed, he says, also fuels what has become a growth industry. “The drone business has become too big.” The CIA has an entire division devoted to targeters who are trained in locating targets and organizing a strike. “You could spend your whole career being a targeter.” Drone manufacturers, in particular General Atomics, which makes Predators and Reapers, are principal beneficiaries. Congress is eager to subsidize the industry, too, especially when it comes to providing high-tech surveillance to crack down on illegal immigration across the U.S.-Mexican border. And while Cockburn acknowledges that drones have indeed spotted people smuggling drugs and people over the border the results hardly warrant the expenditure: it works out to about$7000 per person apprehended.

Cockburn uses the term “tech imprisonment’ to describe the mindset of people who rationalize the effectiveness of drones even if they have to deny the facts. He points out that many of the officers he’s spoken to in the military share his skepticism about greater use of drones to wage war and replace boots on the ground.

Not long ago, children from the tribal areas in Pakistan were asked to testify before a Congressional hearing about the use of drones from personal experience; because the region where they live is used as a hideout for Pakistani and Afghani militants, it has become a frequent target for Predator strikes. After witnessing incidents in which relatives and friends were killed in these strikes, the children said that they’d altered their behavior in hope of avoiding becoming victims themselves. “When it’s warm and sunny we know enough not to play outside,” they told the committee. “We only play on cloudy days.”

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