Journalism in the Public Interest

Podcast: What We Know (And Don’t Know) About the Drone War


A U.S. Air Force MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle from the 163rd Reconnaissance Wing can be seen at dusk during a post-flight inspection at Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, Calif., Jan. 7, 2012. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Stanley Thompson/Released)

Drones, or “unmanned aerial vehicles” as the military prefers to call them, have been used to strike al Qaeda targets in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia as a centerpiece of the Obama administration’s national security protocol. But as ProPublica fellow Cora Currier has detailed in her reporting, much of the drone war remains shrouded in secrecy.

She joins ProPublica editor-in-chief Steve Engelberg in the Storage Closet Studio this week to discuss how drone targets are selected, what exactly a “signature” is (and how it can get you killed), and how officials often frame the conflict in Yemen and Pakistan as the “least bad war” in terms of civilian casualties but public blowback might soon change that calculation.

You can read more of ProPublica’s reporting on drones on our series page. You can also listen to this podcast on iTunes and Stitcher.

clarence swinney

Sep. 5, 2013, 4:09 p.m.

Obama is being attack violently for a no win involvement
How many involvements preceded this one?
Reagan=Nicaragua-El Salvador-Honduras-Lebanon-Grenada
Bush I = Gulf War—Kosovo—Somalia
Bush II—Iraq-Afghanistan-Pakistan
Will   not bombing sites spread Sarin gas?

Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that the following event were to happen. The DoD, CIA, and or NSA detects some traffic about a proposed insurgency. Let’s also say that this, signature, involves a large militia. That our national security is being threatened. Now we can narrow this down to Idaho, Michigan, and Georgia. Would they? Could they? Will they? Posse Comitatus be damned. Just saying!

michael mcmurtrey

Sep. 5, 2013, 7:21 p.m.

So the Kosovo “operation” was a Clinton “success” Clarence, and Rich I see you are baiting this by citing states that have a large population of the so-called “oath-keepers” that somehow are completely aligned with neo-con ideology. The big picture is that we as American citizens have allowed this to happen and 9/11 played a very important role in this process. Blinded by the anger of retaliation we attack. Blinded by a promise to keep us safe, we have let big brother keep tabs on us constantly. Big brother is also a corporate interest. So we fight against each other and let the “elite” manipulate us like puppets.

What amazes me about the drone topic isn’t necessarily the remote death.  I mean, I find that unconscionable and inhuman, myself, especially when our argument not very long ago was that “they” were evil because they used proxies to murder Americans, and yet that’s exactly what a drone is.

But what really bothers me is that we’ve learned absolutely nothing about warfare in thousands of years.  We still basically lay siege to the enemy fortress and murder civilians and low-ranking soldiers to convince the leaders to surrender, even knowing full well that the leaders don’t care about the peons.

We also develop “impenetrable” systems of deploying the military, and we’re shocked every time when a region’s defenders refuse to play by the same rules.  The British were horrified at us for shooting their soldiers from cover.  We were shocked that the Koreans and Vietnamese did the same to us, centuries later.  We don’t know how to handle IEDs in Iraq.  And we soil our pants every time there’s even a chance that some Afghan engineer might be able to pirate a drone’s signal.

Is it really so much to ask that, in 2013, we act like adults and learn from history?  Or does that not make the military contractors enough money…?

Michael, it’s worth mentioning that Kosovo was cited as a reason to attack Syria.  Apparently, there’s a lot of people in Washington who didn’t watch that unfold and think it was something other than a disaster.

And I agree, it’s well past time to quit the “right-left” bickering and stand united against the people actively doing us harm.  For example, refer to not paying taxes as a “loophole,” as if these dodges aren’t explicitly written into the law.  Look at how there’s “gridlock in Congress” until it’s time for more surveillance or a war or a benefit to a corporate special interest.  They get away with it because we’re fighting a century-old debate of capitalism-versus-communism that’s increasingly irrelevant in an increasingly automated and digital world.

@ Michael… the Oath Keepers have absolutely NOTHING to do with the neocon philosophy.  If fact, they are diametrically opposed to anything even remotely connected with the neocons.

Very good interview. Thank you! The powers of the executive branch have become so terrible without any checks & balances by SCOTUS & the US Congress which is indeed frightening.  A US President is become judge, jury & executioner.  In addition, these drone strikes are modern war crimes as signed by the US, Geneva Accords, Principle IV.  The apologies for these war crimes are grossly wanting. It is time for We the People to shutter these programs, NSA, PRISM, the military industrial complex & bankrupt these corporations which have profitted handsomely from war crimes.


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