Editor’s Note: The armed drone is one of the most important counterterrorism instruments, and its use is both constant and controversial. The origins of this program, however, are not well known. Christopher Fuller, a historian at the University of Southampton, offers a brief history of the program and shows how it is interwoven with broader institutional changes in U.S. counterterrorism.
Of all of the weapons in the U.S. arsenal, none is more associated with the current conflict against terrorist forces than the armed drone. From the first lethal strike on the opening night of Operation Enduring Freedom, to the controversy surrounding the targeted killing of U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have been at the forefront of America’s post-9/11 conflicts. Their capabilities have shaped U.S. counterterrorism policy, and forced an evolution in the Laws of Armed Conflict, pushing the boundaries of traditional concepts of imminence, self-defense, and even what constitutes a warzone. As the Trump administration’s sharp escalation of strikes in Yemen and Somalia has reignited debate over the legality, efficacy, and wisdom of the approach, it is worth revisiting the historical origins of this weapon system to better understand the context within which the United States is conducting its counterterrorism operations.
The Reagan Administration’s Counterterrorism Hardliners
President Ronald Reagan came to office at a time when terrorist incidents around the world had increased dramatically both in frequency and lethality, rising over 300 percent between 1970 and 1980. In response, a small group of policymakers within the administration coalesced around the idea that America needed to adopt a more aggressive stance against terrorists and their sponsors. These counterterrorism hardliners, consisting of Secretary of State George Schultz, Director of Central Intelligence William Casey, and the National Security Council staffer responsible for counterterrorism, Lt. Col. Oliver North, set out their proposals in National Security Decision Directive 138. Titled “Combating Terrorism,” the directive acknowledged the phenomenon as a national security threat, and called for the “pre-emptive neutralization of anti-American terrorist groups.” Acknowledging the lack of support from Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger, who saw such activity as a threat to the Pentagon’s military build-up, the directive placed responsibility for implementing this new approach with the CIA.
Langley’s first foray into its new assertive counterterrorism role did not go smoothly. Inexperienced and lacking access to the Pentagon’s resources, the CIA reached out to Lebanon’s G-2 intelligence agency to recruit local operatives to initiate a plan to kill Hezbollah’s so-called spiritual leader, Mohammed Hussayn Fadlallah, whom Langley’s analysts had linked to a number of terrorist attacks including the 1983 suicide bombing of an American barracks in Beirut. The operation, initiated on March 8, 1985, was a disaster, with a massive car bomb ripping through Fadallah’s apartment building, killing more than 80 and injuring a further 200, while missing the primary target entirely. Fadlallah’s followers were quick to link the attack to the United States, hanging a huge banner in front of the blown-out building emblazoned with the words “MADE IN THE USA.” Although a subsequent Senate inquiry attributed the violence to the surrogate Lebanese forces acting as “rogue agents” without sanction from their CIA handlers, Langley did not escape the affair unscathed. The report’s author, Bernie McMahon, a thirty-year intelligence veteran, concluded that while the CIA had not participated in the bombing, it had created a mechanism that ultimately got out of control and led to the bombing.
The United States’ faltering counterterrorism efforts prompted the creation of Vice President George H.W. Bush’s Task Force on Counter Terrorism, which after a thorough review of existing practice introduced NSDD 207 on January 20, 1986. Titled “The National Program for Combating Terrorism,” the directive did not introduce any new measures to what was already set out in NSDD 138, but reinforced policy positions and tightened up procedures. While NSDD 207 retained the CIA as the lead agency in planning and executing counterterrorism operations, it sought to create a greater level of fusion and cooperation on a governmental level. “The entire range of diplomatic, economic, legal, military, paramilitary, covert action and informational assets at our disposal must be brought to bear against terrorism,” the document stated. In making this declaration, the Reagan administration was providing an answer of sorts to a question that had been undermining its counterterrorism efforts since it had entered office. Was terrorism a law enforcement problem or a national security issue? Should the CIA try to capture terrorists alive in order to try them on criminal charges in open courts, or should the goal be to kill them? NSDD 207 came down on both sides—in some cases terrorism was a legal matter, in others it was an act of war. Terrorists should be captured for trial if possible, but that would not always be a requirement. Though NSDD 207 did not provide clarity, it at least acknowledged that the situation was complex and that agencies and departments would need to work together on a case-by-case basis. The introduction of NSDD 207 was swiftly followed by the establishment of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center (CTC—it changed its name to the Counterterorrism Center in 2005) on February 1, 1986, under the leadership of its architect, Duane Clarridge. The new CTC chief was a controversial figure, recently transferred from Latin America following a political storm over a manual he was involved in producing for the Agency-backed Contra rebels in Nicaragua. Titled Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare, the guide advocated the public killing of state officials such as court judges and police chiefs in order to undermine the nation’s communist government, prompting an investigation by the Intelligence Oversight Board over concerns of a violation of President Ford’s post-Church Committee ban on assassination. Far from putting Casey off, Clarridge’s willingness to work on the fringes of regulations struck the director as exactly what was required. “If we’re afraid to hit terrorists because somebody’s going to yell ‘assassination,’” Casey told the Senate Oversight Committee, “it’ll never stop.” “Striking at terrorists planning to strike you is not assassination, it [is] preemptive self-defense,” reasoned the director, articulating the viewpoint that would later became the norm of post-9/11 counterterrorism operations.
In order to facilitate its proactive counterterrorism efforts, Clarridge called for new legal parameters for the CIA that would enable it to undertake offensive strikes against terrorist groups worldwide, depriving them of safe havens. With the support of Casey and Robert Gates—then head of the Directorate of Intelligence (DI) —Reagan signed a highly classified finding granting the CIA the authority to do so. In addition to its more flexible remit, the CTC also departed from traditional Agency structures by combining staff from the Directorates of Intelligence, Operations, and Science and Technology into what Clarridge dubbed a “fusion center.” This interdisciplinary approach reflected his understanding that even aggressive counterterrorism required significant intelligence, analysis, and patience to assemble the puzzle pieces necessary to detect terrorist plots, identify leaders, and locate safe havens. Counterterrorism, Clarridge had explained in his blueprint for the Center, was “a business of minutiae—collecting bits and pieces of data on people, events, places.”
First Priorities: Libya and Lebanon
The CTC’s first priority was countering the continued use of terrorism as a tool of foreign policy by Libya’s anti-American dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. In a speech delivered six months prior to the establishment of the CTC, Reagan declared that the United States had conclusive evidence that linked Libyan agents or their surrogates to at least 25 terrorist incidents that year alone. Moreover, there was no sign the violence was going to stop. The CIA estimated Gaddafi’s influence and reach was growing as he steadily expanded his sponsorship network of terrorist agents.
The Libyan dictator’s terrorist campaign reached a peak on April 5, 1986, when Gaddafi’s agents bombed La Belle nightclub in West Berlin, a popular venue for American service personnel. With NSA intercepts proving Gaddafi’s direct involvement, the reluctant Weinberger had no choice but support the retaliatory strike ordered by Reagan. The operation, codenamed El Dorado Canyon, highlighted the difficulty of using conventional weapons to attack terrorist infrastructure placed within civilian areas. Thirty-seven innocent Libyans died in the air raid, with a further 93 injured—a significantly greater death toll than the attack that had prompted the retaliation. Furthermore, the raid failed to deter Gaddafi, whose regime was connected the Lockerbie bombing two years later. Following the operation, Clarridge mused upon the contradiction created by the U.S. assassination ban. “Why is an expensive military raid with collateral damage […] more morally acceptable than a bullet to the head?” the CTC’s chief asked rhetorically.
The second major challenge facing the CTC was the hostage crisis in Lebanon. Since the summer of 1982, Iranian-sponsored terrorists had systematically kidnapped Westerners, among them numerous U.S. citizens. All too aware of the political damage such a scenario could incur, retrieving the hostages became something of an obsession for Reagan and his national security team. Clarridge, channelling the CIA’s new action-oriented mind-set, sought to mount an elaborate rescue mission by deploying Delta Force, America’s elite counterterrorism unit, into Beirut. The Pentagon’s generals—still burned by the catastrophic failure of Delta Force’s last rescue mission, which attempted to free American hostages held in Tehran after the 1979 revolution, the ill-fated Operation Eagle Claw—rejected the plan. Citing weak intelligence on the hostages’ location, the commanders insisted that there would need to be “American eyes on the target” confirming the location of the hostages 24 hours before any rescue operation could be launched.
Drones as the Solution
Despite the differences between the CTC’s first two challenges, both shared the same solution. Following a suggestion from one of the Center’s technicians, Clarridge commissioned a team of engineers to work on a highly classified pilotless drone, dubbed the Eagle Program. The prototype UAV could carry small rockets to fire at predesignated targets, striking a middle ground between large-scale bombing raids and an assassin’s bullet. Furthermore, the drone was equipped with intercept equipment, an infrared camera, and a low-noise wooden propeller, enabling it to fly at 2,500 feet over Beirut to locate the hostages and coordinate a rescue mission.
Despite the promise of this innovative solution, wider events conspired to ensure the CTC was never able to deploy its revolutionary counterterrorism tool. The Iran-Contra scandal decimated the counterterrorism hardliners, and the CTC’s aggressive agenda along with them. North and Clarridge were both implicated and fired, and Casey died from a brain tumour days before he was due to testify to Congress. The impact of the Eagle Program however did not end there, and in a twist of fate, the same scandal that led to the demise of its sponsor helped ensure the concept evolved into the armed drones we recognize today.
Impressed with the Eagle Program’s applicability to military problems, Charles Hawkins, a deputy assistant secretary of defense, supported an expensive Army device designed along similar lines, only to see the project cancelled as part of a sweeping Pentagon review of UAV expenditure in 1990. The withdrawal of funding was devastating for Leading Systems Incorporated (LSI), the company responsible for developing the Army’s drone, which owed its creditors, Hughes Aircraft Company, $5 million. By late 1990, LSI’s owner and lead engineer, Abraham Karem, had filed for bankruptcy. The gifted Israeli-American engineer and 10 of his staff were saved from unemployment, however, when Hughes sold LSI’s holdings, intellectual property, and patents to General Atomics (GA) for the cut-down price of $1.8 million.
Why did Neal and Linden Blue, the multi-millionaire owners of GA, invest in a bankrupt and out-of-luck drone developer? The obvious answer is that the Colorado-born brothers were entrepreneurs who saw that, while military interest and investment in UAVs had diminished, it was only be a matter of time before technology caught up to the vision of developers such as Karem, making it a shrewd long-term investment. Beyond business however, the Blues had their own personal history with UAVs. As ardent anti-communists, the brothers—who had started their business career running a ranch on Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast—were incensed by the Soviet-backed Sandinista coup in 1979. Self-confessed “enthusiastic supporters” of the CIA’s efforts to overthrow the small socialist government, the Blues instructed GA’s engineers to develop GPS-equipped UAVs to launch on “kamikaze missions” to destroy the country’s fuel stores while giving the U.S. government “total deniability.” GA’s inexperienced engineers produced a prototype named “Predator,” but a combination of its poor design and the fallout of Iran-Contra prevented the UAV’s deployment.
By acquiring Karem’s designs and employing the visionary aeronautics engineer, the Blues ensured the newly formed General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. (GA-ASI) was at the forefront of UAV design. Aided by generous DARPA funding, Karem and his engineers were able to take advantage of the growing connectivity between maturing technologies such as greater UAV endurance, improved satellite connectivity and GPS accuracy, and high-resolution live video feeds to deliver powerful new surveillance tools. These enhanced capabilities offered a solution to the aerial intelligence gap that had troubled U.S. forces since Vietnam, and GA-ASI’s drones were deployed, tested, and further developed in support of the U.S. Air Force air campaigns over the Balkans through the 1990s, eventually culminating in the creation of the RQ-1 Predator.
The Hunt for bin Laden
In early 2000, Admiral Scott Fry, director of operations for the military’s Joint Staff, recommended the Predator to Charles Allen, the assistant director of Central Intelligence for collection, as a potential “game changer” in the Agency’s search for Osama bin Laden within Taliban-controlled southern Afghanistan. Allen, who had formally headed the CTC’s hostage-locating task force back in 1986, immediately appreciated the possibilities afforded by the drone, and proposed the agency acquire the Predator. Ironically, when Richard Clarke, Clinton’s counterterrorism advisor, drew up the “Afghan Eyes” plan, CTC staff resisted, describing the UAV, in Clarke’s words, as “Too Risky. Too costly. Too not-invented-here.” The success of the initial Predator flights quickly removed such doubts, as the Predator filmed bin Laden at his Tarnak farm compound on two separate occasions. Having successfully managed to get American eyes on the target, Clarke pushed for the deployment of the armed variant of the aircraft that the Air Force was developing to provide a “see it/shoot it” option by March 2001.
Despite Clarke’s spring timeline, a range of factors prevented the deployment of an armed Predator drone over Afghanistan prior to the September 11 attacks. Technical challenges related to a lightweight airframe designed for high endurance, not weapon bearing, posed the Air Force’s specialist Big Safari engineers the challenge of launching missiles without ripping the drone’s own wings off. The fragile and experimental nature of the drone, and the consequent need for repairs prompted a budgetary row between the Air Force and CIA, with, in hindsight, the measly sum of $3 million dollars further delaying the project and prompting direct budget amendments from the Clinton White House in the summer of 2000. A legal debate with the State Department over the risk of the weapon platform violating the terms of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty caused further delays. On different legal grounds, CIA Director George Tenet argued it would be a “terrible mistake for the CIA to fire the weapon,” which risked dragging the agency back into the illegal business of assassination.
The lack of interest among the George W. Bush administration with the matter ensured the armed drone remained grounded past Clarke’s March deadline. In the first principal-level meeting regarding al-Qaeda, held on September 4, 2001—eight months after Clarke first requested the gathering—Bush agreed to deploy the armed Predator, but deferred the thorny issue of who would fire the missile. In the aftermath of 9/11, the potency of the resistance of those concerned about the CTC’s role in piloting lethal drones could not stand the pressure for retribution. The bureaucratic deadlock was broken on September 17, 2001 when Bush signed a finding that created a secret list of high-value targets that the CTC was authorized to kill, thus restoring the CTC to the aggressive role its founder, and his hardline supporters, intended.
The CIA’s support for the Contras served as a magnet for hardliners willing to operate on the fringes of U.S. law. While initially united in their Cold War focus, these figures were far-sighted in their realization that a new wave of terrorism was emerging which posed a national security threat that the United States was poorly equipped to address. The close personal connections formed through the CIA’s activity in Latin America helped knit together a network of individuals who were motivated and well placed to act upon the growing pressure to address the increasingly professionalized and dangerous terrorist threat. The fallout from the policy that had helped unite these hardliners dramatically undermined their agenda. The stripping out of talent that followed Iran-Contra combined with a range of other factors over the next decade from dramatic budget cuts, the Aldrich Ames case, and Deutch rules, to see Clarridge’s original war room vision transformed into a risk-averse organization later criticized by the 9/11 commission. Yet it was backing for the Contras, too, which first brought the Blue brothers into the drone business. Without these entrepreneurs, it is unlikely Abraham Karem’s version of the Eagle Program would ever have seen completion.
With regard to the Eagle Program’s two primary goals, drones have come to play a key role in rescuing hostages, with captives such as Captain Richard Phillips, Jessica Buchanan, and Helen Johnstone liberated by U.S. Special Forces with the aid of intelligence gathered from UAVs. Concurrently, the adoption of this proactive approach has at times resulted in the deaths of captives. Linda Norgrove, Luke Somers, and Pierre Korkie all perished because of rescue operations gone wrong. In a tragic twist, two Taliban captives, Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto, were killed along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border by an errant CIA drone strike. Such misfortunes reveal the very real risks of the proactive approach Clarridge endorsed. Yet in political terms, while the White House has had to issue condolences to the families of lost loved ones, drones have helped presidents avoid the maddening powerlessness that caused two previous occupants of the Oval Office to enter into negotiations with terrorists and their sponsors.
As for the counterterrorism program’s first target—Gaddafi—Clarridge’s vision came full circle in 2011 when armed Predators were deployed to Libya as part of the NATO support to rebel forces following the uprising against the dictator. On the morning of October 20, Gaddafi, while attempting to slip out of his compound in Sirte, was set upon by a loitering Predator. The drone, accompanied by a French warplane, attacked the convoy, scattering the vehicles and leaving Libya’s deposed leader sheltering in a culvert, where rebel forces captured and killed him shortly afterward.
The United States’ use of lethal drones in counterterrorism is not the result of an overly militarized response to the shock of 9/11, nor the product of a specific technological innovation. Instead, America’s remote pursuit of its enemies is the realization of a long-held desire to pre-emptively neutralize foreign terrorist threats while avoiding the collateral damage of air strikes and the moral ambiguity of assassination. Seen in this light, the latest escalation is not an anomaly, but instead a deeply American response to a specific kind of national security threat.