Public discourse regarding drones has expanded in recent months, and our conversations about these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) tend toward the chaotic.
Efforts by the intelligence community attempt to bring the American stance on drones closer to the positive, revealed TCF senior fellow Barton Gellman, referencing documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in the Washington Post this September.
The Drone Problem
Intelligence agencies have long bemoaned the term drone, which “connote[s] mindless automatons,” according to one 2010 report from Snowden’s leak, referenced in the Post.
Concerned about the “legitimate social agendas” of some drone-unfriendly interest groups, analysts have advised the use of phrases like “lethal UAV operations,” which in their estimation evokes some nobler cause than does “drone strike.”
A classification like “lethal UAV operations,” agencies feel, would lend a greater degree of precision to swaying public sentiment toward these weapons, the report suggested.
Values favored by analysts, “Inherent Right of Self-Defense” or “Pre-emptive and Preventive Military Action,” are variations on the common theme of fear-mongering.
The idea seems to be that if our mammoth weapons programs must be discussed publicly, then they ought to be spoken of in terms that further a wartime agenda.
Sure, this makes sense from certain government agencies’ perspectives, at least for the immediate future.
However, UAVs like the U.S. Predator drone, used for reconnaissance and other classified offensive tasks, offer the American military an unprecedented level of surveillance and power, and inevitable glitches can subvert drone operators’ control, producing a situation in which “automaton” is an apt term. Gellman notes:
“U.S. officials and aviation experts acknowledge that unmanned aircraft have a weak spot: the satellite links and remote controls that enable pilots to fly them from thousands of kilometers away.”
The Weakest Link
Periods of unresponsiveness, known as “lost link” incidents, can occur when necessary satellites move out of range or when a drone drops a signal.
Lost links are relatively uncommon and typically unproblematic —“connections are usually re-established within seconds or minutes” —but the interruptions have led to crashes, one of which Iran took credit for claiming an “electronic ambush” in 2011. (U.S. officials attributed the crash to a regular technical malfunction.)
Another weak spot has been found in drones’ encryptions. In 2009, Iraqi insurgents hacked into video feeds meant to relay information to U.S. troops on the ground. In response to the incident, Air Force officials are now promising to encrypt all video feeds by 2014.
Even so, analysts view these new safeguards as precautions, not as remedies. “While the ability of insurgent forces to view unencrypted or to break into encrypted data streams has been a concern for some time,” another 2010 report advised. “Indications to date are that insurgents have not been able to wrest (drone) control from its mission control ground station.”
In short, drones could have vulnerabilities, but insurgents’ as-yet limited technologies could not rival the prowess of a Predator or Reaper drone.
If insurgents were to fully intercept video feeds, this access might have “‘a deterrent effect’ by demonstrating the extent to which U.S. forces were able to watch their movements,” writes Gellman.
In light of this year’s bombshell news stories (also uncovered by Gellman) regarding NSA surveillance programs, the haughty stance taken by analysts is particularly resonant.
Post 9/11 Security
Drones are the most significant tool in the military’s arsenal for the detection, identification and disruption of terrorist threats to the U.S. and around the world.
The U.S. drone campaign has “become a pillar of the U.S. government’s counterterrorism strategy,” essentially handing the entire scope of the globe to the CIA for hunting enemies of the U.S., even to the most obscure regions of the earth.
As data collection is effective in its vast scope, drone strikes are effective in their incredible precision. The tactics both juggle security and privacy, two issues that promise public dispute in the post-9/11 period.
Both are subject to abstraction by our intelligence community, which tends to deal with the inevitable security-privacy tensions by sequestering them in classified programs or reports.
To be sure, the urge to understand the NSA’s metadata programs and the military’s drone campaigns calls for an awareness of each program’s particularities.
That level of awareness is not likely to trump the general condition of American apathy. But even if we are willing to engage full-force with these thorny (to put it lightly) political issues, our government’s rhetorical posturing does not help those conversations any.
After answering the question of whether to discuss a given issue, exactly how we discuss it is the primary factor to shape public opinion. From the perspective of an average citizen, say, Edward Snowden, the old dictum “knowledge is power” holds true.
If we are to use technical or “secular” terms like UAV, to which the government has attached particular values, then we ought to know what those values are. In this light, Edward Snowden may start to look more like a patriot, or at the very least, worthy of his alias Verax (“truth-seeker”).
Equip yourself rhetorically for discussions on UAVs/drones by reading through Gellman’s piece, which covers al-Qaeda’s counterdrone strategy, the terrorist network’s emphasis on recruiting technicians and the jihadist publication that praises “‘various technologies’ to hack, manipulate and destroy unmanned aircraft.”