War by Remote Control?

by Frida Berrigan
Dissident Voice

November 10, 2002



The Central Intelligence Agency recently fired the opening salvo in a new phase of the war on terrorism, ushering in the "war by remote control." Using the Predator, an unmanned surveillance plane, the CIA tracked and destroyed a car carrying Al Qaeda's "top man in Yemen," Qaed Salim Sinan Al-Harethi. The November 3rd attack, the first concrete instance of the Bush preemptive strike policy, signals a radical escalation in the war on terrorism, and raises a number of serious issues.


Harethi was suspected of planning the October 2000 USS Cole attack that killed 17 U.S. sailors. The five other passengers, all low level Al Qaeda operatives (including one with U.S. or dual citizenship) were killed.


Operated by remote control from a van up to 400 miles away, the Predator can fly for 16 hours at a height of 15,000 feet, relaying live video images to CIA headquarters and the Pentagon. In the opening months of the war in Afghanistan, the plane was used exclusively for surveillance. But after the U.S. missed an opportunity to strike Al Qaeda leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Predator was armed with two Hellfire missiles, allowing it to attack based on real time intelligence. The Pentagon refused to name the "very senior officials" who authorized the attack, saying only that it fit within President Bush's classified directives that give the CIA broad powers to hunt Al Qaeda operatives.


Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh condemned the attack as a "summary execution that violates human rights." Her comments are liable to hit a nerve in the Bush administration, which has criticized and sought to distance itself from the Israeli policy of "targeted killings" of Palestinian terrorists. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher tried to explain that even though the CIA carried out a targeted killing, "our policy on targeted killings in the Israeli Palestinian context has not changed," but that the reasons for that policy "do not necessarily apply to other circumstances." Despite this qualified double standard, some Israeli scholars interpret the CIA's attack as an endorsement of their policy and a recognition that in light of the September 11th attacks, "the U.S. situation has become more like the Israeli situation," as Barry Rubin, of Global Research in International Affairs, puts it.


Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer defended the attack by saying the United States is engaged in a "different kind of war with a different kind of battlefield" which means that "sometimes the best defense is a good offense."


While this attack, which Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz praised as "a very successful tactical operation," seems to secure a place for the Predator in the war on terrorism, the plane remains controversial and fraught with problems.


Generals praise the $25 million system as "a highly effective, relatively inexpensive and risk-free means of spying on enemies and pinpointing targets." But the Predator's track record does not support those conclusions. More than half of the Air Force's 48 Predators have been destroyed; either in crashes as a result of mechanical failure, weather, or operator error, or shot down by enemy fire because they are slow, noisy and cannot evade radar detection. The Predators were not designed to be armed, and the addition of the Hellfire missiles is strictly experimental and untested.


In March, the Project on Government Oversight published the findings of an unreleased report from the Pentagon's Director of Operational Test and Evaluation that stated that the Predator is plagued with "poor target location accuracy, ineffective communications, and limits imposed by relatively benign weather, including rain."  


Despite these technical difficulties, it "worked" in Yemen. But just because the CIA can attack by remote control, does that mean they should? No. The attack sets a new precedent for offensive attack, violates international norms, and raises the likelihood of retributive attack or "blowback." If the United States is committed to this brand of highway justice, what will keep other countries from following suit and developing their brand of justice by remote control?


Frida Berrigan is a Senior Research Associate at the World Policy Institute's Arms Trade Resource Center. She can be reached at berrigaf@newschool.edu