A Tale of Two Drones: Valuing Robots Over Humans

FILE - In this June 13, 2010, file photo a U.S. Predator unmanned drone armed with a missile stands on the tarmac of Kandahar
FILE - In this June 13, 2010, file photo a U.S. Predator unmanned drone armed with a missile stands on the tarmac of Kandahar military airport in Afghanistan. Hunting al-Qaida targets from Pakistan to Afghanistan, Yemen to Somalia, the fleet of U.S. armed Predator and Reaper drones that killed two American members of al-Qaida in Yemen Friday, Sept. 30, 2011, are the night stalkers of the expanded U.S. war on terrorists. (AP Photo/Massoud Hossaini, Pool, File)

U.S. Drone Under Iranian Fire Provokes National Outrage, Drone Attack in Yemen Ignored

Two drone attacks were reported immediately after the U.S. elections: one drone attack against humans, and an attempted attack against a drone, in which neither the drone nor, for the record, any human being, was harmed. The lethal drone attack, in Yemen, widely suspected to be ordered from the U.S. government, killed three suspected Al Qaeda militants and injured three others, including a child, fewer than 10 miles from a capital city of two million people.

The U.S. drone that was the target of an attack served a 'classified surveillance operation' in the Persian Gulf, and was reportedly fired upon within international airspace by Iran. While the drone was undamaged, it made front page headlines and provoked national outrage. Satirizing the disproportionate response of a 'close call' for a robot, constitutional lawyer and blogger Glenn Greenwald quipped,

"Although it was not physically injured, being shot at by the Iranians -- while it was doing nothing other than peacefully minding its own business -- must have been a very traumatic experience."

Joking aside, an attempted Iranian attack in international airspace would be a violation of international law, and a dangerous provocation.

It is striking to see the outrage that the 'close call' elicited, when the attack in Yemen was virtually ignored by major media and Washington. The White House has yet to confirm or deny its involvement in this deadly strike that came within hours of newly reelected President Obama's victory speech, in which he declared that "a decade of war is ending."

Disregard for human life and the rule of law is exposed in stark relief when, in the very same week, news of a failed shot at a robotic device evokes national outrage, while the robotic maiming of a child and killing of three people -- who will never see trial for alleged crimes -- is met with radio silence.

The Fog of "Close Calls" in the Persian Gulf

Iran's government accuses the drone of part of a U.S. mission to spy on Iran, and claims it only fired when the drone was in its airspace, rather than four miles from Iran's airspace.

There has been no independent confirmation that it was a U.S. drone in the latest attack in Yemen, though experts widely speculate it was. The three killed included Adnan al-Qadhi, a former jihadi fighter in Afghanistan and suspected al-Qaeda member accused of being linked to a cell that carried out the 2008 car bomb attack on the U.S. embassy in Sanaa that killed six Yemeni soldiers and four civilians.

The White House has not answered the question posed by Gregory Johnson, renowned expert on Al Qaeda in Yemen , who tweeted on the day of the strike:

Like the drone program, near-misses in the Persian Gulf have a record of being shrouded in secrecy. As journalist Scott Peterson delicately put it, "correct facts have not always been initially forthcoming in past U.S.-Iran incidents in the Persian Gulf."

Peterson cites the example of U.S. warships nearly firing on Iranian speedboats in 2008, in response to alleged aggressive behavior, and a radio transmission that said "I am coming to you. You will explode in a few minutes." Only later was an infamous radio heckler, dubbed "the Filipino Monkey," widely blamed for the threatening transmission that could have led to war.

A decade earlier, a Newsweek investigation found that the U.S. Navy covered up key facts related to the U.S.S. Vincennes shoot-down of an Iranian commercial jet in 1998, killing all 290 passengers on board. Although the Navy claimed its ship was in international waters, the Newsweek investigation found it was in fact in Iranian waters, a violation of international law. This was one factor that led Newsweek to call the Pentagon's own investigation "a pastiche of omission, half-truths and outright deceptions".

'Omission, half-truths and outright deceptions' inevitably run rampant between two countries that don't have an established channel of communication. While the Pentagon could communicate directly to most any other country on Earth directly, in the case of Iranian fire on a U.S. asset, the Pentagon was reduced to "lodging a formal protest via the Swiss embassy" which has served as the intermediary since the United States and Iran severed relations in 1980.

Bush Administration Official Slams Obama's "Cavalier" Drone Use

Col. Lawrence Wilkerson (ret.), the former chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell, and a 31-year Army veteran, noted that this latest 'close call' highlights how the United States' lawless practices of using drones have already caused blowback. Via email, Col. Wilkerson pointed out the longstanding practice of U.S. attacks in other nations' airspace:

"It is national airspace that the U.S. violates quite often with regard to Pakistan and drone strikes there -- a point Pakistan has made repeatedly. Usually from international airspace, we are violating the national airspace of Somalia, Mali, and other countries. These are all precedents that are unprecedented, and are being executed and established as cavalierly as a casual sneeze."

Warning Shots?

Foreign Policy's reporter John Reed asked another largely overlooked question: Did Iran deliberately miss?

When Reed asked aviation expert Richard Aboulafia whether Iran should have been able to take down this U.S. drone, he said "yes, they should." It is possible Iran fired 'warning shots' and deliberately avoided shooting down the drone.

Coming Back to Haunt

The White House has refused to release answers on where drones are being used, how many thousands of civilians they have killed, or how much of a boon they have given to Al Qaeda's recruitment efforts. "What we do know," Col. Wilkerson explained, "is that drones will come back to haunt us, and perhaps they already are doing so." While foreign drones have yet to fly over U.S. airspace, an unscathed lethal robot has already won far greater sympathies here than did the robotic maiming of a child in one of the planet's poorest countries. The haunting has surely already begun.