Sunday, January 13, 2013

Where Does John Brennan Stand On Drones?

drone, UAV, CIA, John Brennan, Barack ObamaThe United States is accomplishing much of it's war on terror these days with drones, or UAVs -- unmanned aerial vehicles. The recent appointment of John Brennan has particular relevance to how the country continues in this use of remotely piloted aircraft to do its dirty work.


Clearly, as with any political issue, and maybe more so with those related to defense, there are significant pros and cons on both sides. To the advantage, no American pilots are put at risk in these strikes, there is far less impact on the overall situation than a ground force strike, or even a convention air strike, and UAVs--which provide both surveillance and strike capabilities, can locate, identify and engage targets in real time from a single, almost undetectable aircraft, or small group of drones.

One the other hand, there are several significant negatives to the use of UAVs, starting with does it simply make killing too easy, too clean? How much collateral damage is really being done, and what does this say about our employment of this technology so far? We are taking advantage of the stealth of these platforms to invade the airspace of other nations without their consent, specifically, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia. Deployment in other countries, Libya, Afghanistan, for instance, may more or less with that country's approval, but who knows? Because the CIA runs the whole thing secretly, we really don't know. This is no trivial matter, invading another country's space using any means. I understand that these nations are not fully cooperating in helping us get the actual bad guys who are determined to kill Americans, but is that a large enough excuse to violate another country's sovereignty? If someone did that to us, we would consider it an act of war and claim a right to retaliate.

The appointment of John Brennan to head CIA is of direct relevance to this issue because he has been an instrumental advocate for the use of UAVs to eliminate direct threats to the USA. Indeed, in these last few years of escalation under President Obama, Brennan is the man who brings the list of specific targets to the President for kill approval. He is the man who keeps the CIA's kill list. One might presume from this that there will be more of these strikes in the future. But here is where human nature plays in to complicate things. John Brennan is well known as an advocate for the use of drones to help keep America, and if need be, the world safer by surgical use against bona fide threats to the USA or allies immediately engaged in an action against us that an unmanned strike would likely stop. But Brennan has also spoken out lately to indicate he is very much a deep-thinking career CIA man, who understands the ramifications of this warfare very well, and has indeed said that while we do need to use more surgical drone strikes and far fewer conventional warfare full force engagements to fulfill our responsibilities of defense. BUT! This activity has grown in size, scope and complexity, and quite likely should therefore be transferred from the CIA to the defense department, where each action receives the full visibility and attention a military strike by the United States should deserve. Bringing control of these drone strikes back to DOD increases the transparency of our programs and deployments, and gives first Congress, then the public, a better opportunity to perform oversight.

This would also benefit the country by getting the CIA out of the killing business, the way it's being conducted now it's way too much like assassination for my liking, and let the CIA get back to its primary duty of collecting and analyzing intelligence for action by other departments of the government. The CIA has traditionally, contrary to the movies, provided the greatest utility to America when it gets geeky, not all James Bond licensed to kill. It has a different role than the NSA, which exists as a technology and data-centric organization. The CIA does gather raw data as well, but often from more up close means including human intelligence assets.

I think that John Brennan is acutely aware of the finest points of this issue and is actually an excellent choice to head CIA at this time. I believe he will set about transferring the control of the UAV programs to DOD, and get CIA back to the core job of helping to identify specific threats. 

micro air vehicle, MAV, drone, UAV, CIA, John Brennan, Barack Obama

You may not know a lot about drones themselves, what we actually have right now, what we are building. To help get an overview of this technology, I put together this website: There's 20 real, prototype or conceptual UAVs depicted there, and each links to its article on Wikipedia, just click any picture.

Here is an excellent article about drones on ProPublica:

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