The Wall Street Journal reports: On Sept. 7, 2000, in the waning days of the Clinton administration, a U.S. Predator drone flew over Afghanistan for the first time. The unmanned, unarmed plane buzzed over Tarnak Farms, a major al Qaeda camp. When U.S. analysts later pored over video footage from this maiden voyage, they were struck by the image of a commandingly tall man clad in white robes. CIA analysts later concluded that he was Osama bin Laden.
From that first mission, the drone program has grown into perhaps the most prominent instrument of U.S. counterterrorism policy — and, for many in the Muslim world, a synonym for American callousness and arrogance. The U.S. has used drones to support ground troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and, particularly under President Barack Obama, to hammer the high command of al Qaeda. A recent study by the Stimson Center, a think tank in Washington, D.C., estimates that U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan have killed 2,000 to 4,000 people. Other countries are trying to get into the act, including Iran, which U.S. officials say has flown drones over Iraq during the current crisis there.
Drones seem to be everywhere these days, buzzing into civilian life and even pop culture. French players complained before the World Cup that a mysterious drone-borne camera had spied on their training sessions. Amazon owner Jeff Bezos hopes to use drones for faster home delivery. Tom Cruise starred last summer as a futuristic drone repairman in the sci-fi thriller “Oblivion,” and Captain America himself faced down lethal super-drones in this spring’s “The Winter Soldier.” Hollywood is even using drones in real life, helping to film such tricky scenes as the chase early in the 2012 James Bond caper “Skyfall,” when Daniel Craig as 007 races across the rooftops of Istanbul.
But as ubiquitous as Predators, Reapers, Global Hawks and their ilk may now seem, the U.S. actually stumbled into the drone era. Washington got into the business of using drones for counterterrorism well before 9/11—not out of any steely strategic design or master plan but out of bureaucratic frustration, bickering and a series of only half-intentional decisions. [Continue reading…]