WASHINGTON -- As the technology for arming drones spreads around the world, terrorists could use the unmanned, missile-firing aircraft to attack and kill the president and other U.S. leaders, the former chief of U.S. intelligence said Tuesday.
Retired Adm. Dennis Blair, who served as President Obama's first director of national intelligence, told reporters he was concerned that the proliferation of armed drones -- a potential outgrowth of the U.S. reliance on drones to attack and kill terrorists -- could well backfire.
"I do fear that if al Qaeda can develop a drone, its first thought will be to use it to kill our president, and senior officials and senior officers," Blair said during a conference call with reporters. "It is possible without a great deal of intelligence to do something with a drone you cannot do with a high-powered rifle or driving a car full of explosives and other ways terrorists now use to try killing senior officials," he said.
The U.S. development and growing use of armed drones has not "opened a huge Pandora's box which will make us wish we had never invented the drone," Blair said. But he said if drones are acquired by terrorist groups, it would force the U.S. to take defensive measures. Yet, the U.S. already has extensive surveillance of its airspace and sophisticated weapons designed against a variety of airborne threats.
The Obama administration has accelerated armed drone strikes against individuals and groups in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia as well as Afghanistan, in a campaign which is almost entirely secret. Administration officials have said the strikes are necessary to combat terrorist plotting against the U.S. But while President Obama and other officials have declared the strikes are legal, the White House has refused to divulge its legal justification for the strikes, which have included the killing of an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki.
Blair said the Obama administration has only "partly thought through" the repercussions of its expanded drone attack campaign, including the inevitable proliferation of drone technology to other countries and organizations. He spoke Tuesday on a call organized by the Council on Foreign Relations, with senior analyst Micah Zenko.
Already, dozens of countries from Iran to China are using surveillance drones, and experts believe it will not be long before swarms of armed drones take to the air.
The Obama administration is coming under increasing pressure to unveil at least some details of the secretive drone counter-terrorist campaign, which is carried out by the Joint Special Operations Command and by the CIA. The latter agency largely operates the drone strikes against terrorist groups in Pakistan.
Blair -- who was dismissed by President Obama in May 2010 after a falling-out over intelligence matters -- said the administration should make public some details of how and why it decides that some terrorists should be targeted. "The United States is a democracy, we want our people to know how we use military force and that we use it in ways the United States is proud of," Blair said. "There's been far too little debate" about this form of killing.
The drone strikes are reviewed, after they have taken place, by the House and Senate intelligence committees, so there is some oversight of the process by which targets are selected and people killed. But Blair said he doubted the White House would allow the public insight into the drone program. "They've made the cold-blooded calculation that it's better to hunker down and take the criticism than to take the debate public -- which I think in the long run is essential," he said.
But Blair acknowledged that a robust public discussion about the legal basis for the drones campaigns would have little deterrent effect on terrorists. He said extremist groups look at how the U.S. frames its military strikes in legal terms not in order to emulate that behavior but "in order to find weaknesses" they can exploit.
"If a terrorist group gets drone technology," Blair said, "it will use it against us every way they can."