The CIA's campaign of using drones—unmanned aircraft—against enemies of the United States is one of Washington's most open secrets. Last week, al Qaeda said its most recent No. 3 leader, an Egyptian named Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, was killed in Pakistan along with family members—apparently by a CIA drone missile.
In on-the-record interviews, intelligence officials neither admit nor deny even the existence of the CIA drone offensive. Yet at the annual White House Correspondents Association fete this spring, with journalists and some of the country's top intelligence officers in attendance, a black-tied commander in chief joked about using a "Predator drone" against the Jonas Brothers if they "got any ideas" about his daughters, who are big fans. "You will never see it coming," said President Obama, drawing laughter from the audience.
A report from a senior United Nations official released last week finds nothing funny about the use of armed drones, warning that it could lead to international chaos if other countries follow suit. Philip Alston, a New York University law professor who also serves as the U.N.'s special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, urged Washington to scale back its drone campaign in places outside of traditional war zones and urged the establishment of new international guidelines on the use of targeted killings. Forty countries currently have drones, though few field an armed variant. Acknowledging the way in which technology has changed war, the report also warns that because drone pilots are based thousands of miles from the battlefield, they could develop a "PlayStation mentality to killing."
The Alston report, delivered to the U.N.'s Human Rights Council, comes amid a dramatic uptick in the number of drone strikes under Obama. Since his administration took office, there have been 91 reported drone strikes in Pakistan alone, compared with a total of 45 in the years 2004-2008, according to the Long War Journal, a military blog that tracks reported strikes. The U.N. report explicitly calls for countries to make public the number of civilians collaterally killed in strikes and put measures in place to avoid them. Drone strikes also have been reported in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen and have killed hundreds of civilians in addition to those targeted, often outraging people living in places like Pakistan's tribal areas. Furthermore, the list of approved drone targets has been expanded from terrorists to drug lords, according to government documents.
Officials in Washington pushed back hard against the report. "Without discussing or confirming any specific action, this agency's operations are, of course, designed from the very start to be lawful and are subject to close oversight," says Marie Harf, a CIA spokeswoman. And another open secret is that most foreign governments cooperate with the CIA's efforts. "If anyone's suggesting that the U.S. strikes at terrorists against the will of the Pakistani government, they're wrong," notes one U.S. official. "This is a common fight, not a unilateral one."