Hanging in an atrium of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, home to the Wright brothers’ plane and the Mercury capsule that first carried an American into space, is a Predator drone with the tail number 3034. Like the other vehicles on display, it made history by launching a revolution: Nearly one month after 9/11, in the skies above Afghanistan, 3034 became the first unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to kill humans with a remotely fired missile.
Once little more than novelties, militarized drones are now buzzing around the globe like locusts. According to New America, “the virtual monopoly on drones that the States once enjoyed is long gone.” Eighty-six countries have some drone capability, with 19 either possessing armed drones or acquiring the technology. At least six countries other than America have used drones in combat, and in 2015, defense consulting firm Teal Group estimated that drone production would total $93 billion over the next decade—reaching more than three times the current market value.
Experts fear that sinister actors may be obtaining the technology as well. In a report issued this January, the Oxford Research Group’s Remote Control Project, which analyzes developments in military technology, warned that the Islamic State “is reportedly obsessed with launching a synchronized multi-drone attack on large numbers of people in order to re-create the horrors of 9/11.” The report’s lead author has said, “Drones are a game-changer in the wrong hands.”
Are there any safe hands, though? The United States is the motivating force behind UAVs’ increasing sophistication and deadliness. Since taking office, President Barack Obama has attacked more countries than any president since World War II, launching drone strikes against at least seven nations and killing thousands of people, many of them innocent civilians. According to a February report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the Pentagon makes little effort to determine whom UAVs are slaying: “Just 10 of the scores killed by U.S. drones in Pakistan last year have so far been identified.”
It may be too late to stuff the drone genie back into the bottle. Yet the Obama administration has six months before leaving office to at least do some damage control. It could start by telling the truth—not just cautioning people about the dangers drones could pose when deployed by terrorists, but also admitting to the toll that unmanned weapons have exacted under U.S. command.
Anxiety about the Islamic State’s access to drones has increased over the past few years. In 2014, the group employed UAVs to shoot propaganda video of fierce fighting in Kobane, Syria. In March 2015, coalition forces said they witnessed the Islamic State using a drone for reconnaissance near Fallujah. Then, in December, Kurdish fighters shared pictures purporting to show the wreckage of UAVs; the Kurds claimed terrorists may have begun experimenting with explosives to weaponize drones.
Fear has also hit U.S. soil. In 2014, the RAND Corporation reported, “[I]t is possible that a terrorist group could launch an expendable armed UAV attack from within the United States or a neighboring country.” Last July, as the number of domestic arrests of Islamic State sympathizers was growing, the Department of Homeland Security warned police units nationwide about drones being “used by adversaries…as part of an attack.”
Ironically, there is evidence that America’s own drone program is compelling terrorists to adopt unmanned tools. It’s not just that the Islamic State is watching and learning the tricks of the drone game from the country that invented it. The organization is also angry about the lives claimed in American strikes.
That was the conclusion of four former U.S. Air Force servicemen, with decades of experience among them operating drones, who wrote an impassioned letter to Obama last November. “[T]he innocent civilians we were killing only fueled the feelings of hatred that ignited terrorism and groups like ISIS, while also serving as a fundamental recruitment tool,” they argued. “The administration and its predecessors have built a drone program that is one of the most devastating driving forces for terrorism and destabilization around the world.”
The government has deliberately kept Americans in the dark about this cause and effect. Victims of strikes die in obscurity; their broken bodies are buried in remote towns in the Middle East and South Asia. Whistleblowers have leaked documents to the Intercept showing that upward of 90 percent of victims may be unintended yet labeled “enemies killed in action,” making it easy for the government (if asked at all) to deny responsibility for civilian deaths.
Last summer, Faisal bin Ali Jaber, a 57-year-old Yemeni engineer whose family members (including an anti-al Qaeda cleric) were killed in a 2012 U.S. drone attack, sued the Obama administration to establish that the strike had been unlawful. In September, his lawyers proposed to settle in exchange for “an apology and an explanation as to why a strike that killed two innocent civilians was authorized.” The Justice Department refused, however, because “the government could not confirm or deny” that the attack had even occurred.
When America launched its drone wars, it doubtless did not anticipate that terrorists might want to strike the United States with a weapon of its own making. Nor did the government likely expect veteran drone operators would assert that the White House is “lying publicly about the effectiveness of the drone program.” Yet here we are.
The only move the Obama administration can make to set things right is to remove its cloak of secrecy. At a minimum, it owes apologies to the families of guiltless victims. But only by providing the public with long-overdue answers—about deaths caused by UAV strikes, their impact on terrorist recruitment, and other salient issues—can there at last be a serious debate about whether the benefits of unmanned warfare outweigh its detriments. For how can America hope to quell the threat of an Islamic State armed with drones if it cannot first admit the role it may have played in landing the weapons in terrorists’ hands?
A version of this article originally appeared in the May/June issue of FP magazine under the title “What America Hath Wrought.”
Illustration by Matthew Hollister