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Spies in the Sky


It’s all because of the little noticed annual report for 2010 from the United States Department of State Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS).  The document was released March 2011.  Some especially interesting language is found on page 26 in a section entitled “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.”  It describes how the “Department of State coordinated with the U.S. Department of Defense and other government agencies to research using Tier 1 (low altitude, long endurance) unmanned aerial vehicles in high-threat locations such as Iraq and Afghanistan.  This effort led to a successful test in Iraq in December.  DS plans to deploy unmanned aerial vehicles to support U.S. Embassy Baghdad in 2011. The program will watch over State Department facilities and personnel and assist Regional Security Officers with high-threat mission planning and execution.”  The “unmanned aerial vehicles” to which the document refers are popularly known as “drones” and have already proved their usefulness in killing, among others Abdulrahman al-Awlaki in Yemen.  Now the United States would like to use them for spying. But first, Abdulrahman.

Abdulrahman was born in Denver Colorado but moved with his family to Yemen.  As reported by Time magazine, on September 15 the 16-year old Abdulrahman left his home in Yemen looking for his father, Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen and radical cleric who was hiding in the southern province of Yemen called Shabwa.  The United States had long targeted his father and during the time Abdulrahman was searching for him his father was killed by a CIA sponsored drone.  Two weeks later another drone attack killed a senior al-Qaeda militant whom the United States had targeted.  The luster of the raid was dimmed because Abdulrahman, one of his cousins and six other people were also killed. They were not targets but, as one U.S. official in a clever, if not particularly sensitive turn of phrase put it when referring to Abdulrahman’s death, he “was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”  That was, of course, self-evident.  Now we are privy to discussions about drones used for spying instead of killing.

For years it has been accepted that countries routinely place their intelligence agents under cover in other countries in an attempt to learn what is going on in those countries that may affect the spying country’s interests. Now, thanks to modern science, a country is not limited in its spying on another country to boots on the ground. Instead,  it can use drones.  There is, of course, one small problem with that.  The country over which the drones fly may not react cordially to the idea that the United States can fly drones wherever it wants.  Indeed, it is likely that the United States would not take kindly to learning that Russia was routinely flying drones in U.S. skies for purposes of gathering intelligence.

It has now been disclosed that the United States,  which is responsible for the chaos that reigns in Iraq following the successful conclusion of the war it started, plans to fly drones in order to protect what is the biggest United States embassy in the world.  Formally opened in 2009,  the embassy will house more than 11,000 people and be protected by 5,000 private security contractors and an undisclosed number of drones. The embassy is as big as the Vatican and includes a 16,000 square foot ambassador’s residence and a 9000 square foot residence for the deputy ambassador. At the opening ceremony in 2009, U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker said the opening signaled a “new era for Iraq and United States relations.”   He was probably not thinking of drones.  The Iraqis now are and drones promise to become another nail in the coffin in which a “new era for Iraq and United States relations” lies.

The Iraqis are upset at the idea that the United States believes it has the right to fly its drones wherever it wants.  They don’t think a foreign country,  which the United States is now that its troops have gone home, should have the right to violate its air space.  They think the United States should get permission to operate the drones in Iraqi airspace. Commenting on the proposal to use drones, several key advisors to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki said they had not been consulted about the Americans’ plans and one of them who opposes the drone program said:  “Our sky is our sky, not the U.S.A.’s sky.”  That idea might shock the State Department. Another Iraqi, Mohammed Ghaleb Nasser, an enginer from the northern city of Mosul said:  “If they are afraid about their diplomats being attacked in Iraq, then they can take them out of the country.”  Of course he probably wasn’t thinking of the fact that the embassy is practically brand new.  The United States would be as reluctant to leave the new embassy as Saddam Hussein was to leave his assorted palaces for a prison cell.

Permitting the United States to fly drones wherever it wants is the price a country may have to pay for friendship with the United States.  Some countries may think that price too high.

Christopher Brauchli is an attorney living in Boulder, Colorado. He can be e-mailed at

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