Melding the Overt With the Covert in Drone Warfare

03/05/2015 11:50 am ET | Updated May 05, 2015

It was a typical little news story on Washington's drone wars -- six paragraphs from Yemen, the sort of minimalist report that, in these years, has also regularly come out of Pakistan or even, from time to time, Somalia. "A U.S. drone attack in Yemen killed four suspected al-Qaeda militants on Saturday in the southern province of Shabwa, local Yemeni security officials told Reuters." Who those "militants" really were we seldom know; there's rarely follow-up in the mainstream media. It's just another barely noticed mini-triumph in Washington's ongoing "covert" drone wars in the Greater Middle East.

Those wars have been secret and yet strangely public for years now. The White House has seemingly been filled with pride over its ever-updated "kill list" and the regular CIA strikes on terror targets it green-lights for a small fleet of Predator and Reaper drones armed with Hellfire missiles. As a result, it eagerly leaks information about its drone wars that it considers flattering. Meanwhile, its top officials don't hesitate to discuss or even brag about the program. In this, it follows in a tradition established in the 1980s by President Ronald Reagan in which "covert wars" -- in his case, in Central America -- were fought in remarkably open and publicity-conscious ways. Meanwhile, their supposedly secret nature kept them from serious oversight. In this way, covert and overt were wedded in a process intended to free the White House and the CIA to do as they wished.

As a result, in the post-9/11 years, at least in the mainstream media, drone assassination campaigns have generally gotten a remarkably free ride. While those "militants" always seem to go down for the count, it's rarely mentioned in the same reports that, in places like Yemen, the local terror outfits that Washington means to crush from the air, militant by militant, terrorist leader by terrorist leader, only seem to grow.

More than a decade of intense experience with drones teaches us at least one salient lesson: our robot warriors make war in the usual sense of the term, but in another way as well. In places that are not officially American war zones, their operations also regularly generate war. They are, that is, not a military solution to a problem, but a significant part of that problem. And let's add a second lesson from these droning years into the mix. The U.S. has pioneered the drone as a weapon for a new kind of war. In the process, it has opened drone flyways down which many countries and undoubtedly terror organizations, too, will one day travel. The recent decision of the Obama administration to spread drone technology by selling armed drones to its allies will only hasten the process. The crash of an over-the-counter commercial drone on the White House grounds and mysterious drones of a similar nature flying by night over tourist sites (and the U.S. Embassy) in Paris, a city already on edge, only emphasize the way in which such technology has now been let loose everywhere. (Even the Secret Service is about to start experimenting with drone flights in Washington.)

However, as Pratap Chatterjee, author of "Halliburton's Army: How A Well-Connected Texas Oil Company Revolutionized the Way America Makes War", suggests today in "Are Pilots Deserting Washington's Remote-Control War?," a new and important critique of Washington's drone wars is emerging from a thoroughly unexpected place: the drone pilots themselves. Explain it as you will, they are taking their hands off the joysticks and voting against drone war with their feet -- and possibly, though the subject couldn't be murkier, their consciences.