What WAS Our Sentinel Drone Surveilling in Iran?

Kevin Drum captures where the state of the reporting on the story that the MEK, backed by Israel, is responsible for the assassinations of Iranian scientists and the implication that that makes Israel a state that sponsors terrorism. Drum writes,

Are the attacks on Iran terrorism? Of course they are. If they’re not, we might as well give up on even trying to define the word. But is it acceptable just because the other side is using it? Of course it’s —

But wait a second. Is it? For all practical purposes, Iran and Israel are at war; they’ve been at war for a long time; and both sides have tacitly agreed that it will primarily be a war carried out nonconventionally. The alternative is what we did in Afghanistan and Iraq: a full-scale conventional attack.

Is that a superior alternative? To say the least, I’m a little hard pressed to say it is. But the alternative is not to fight back at all. Given the current state of the art in human nature, that’s really not in the cards.

Still: is it terrorism? Yes. Do both sides use it? Yes. Is this, in many cases, the future of warfare? Probably yes.

The only question I’d raise is a chicken and an egg thing. Who attacked whom first? And if Hezbollah is your proxy to say that Iran did, then what was the 2006 invasion of Lebanon about?

Speaking of chickens and eggs, though, there’s something left out of this formulation. The US.

As I noted back in December, the reporting of David Sanger (whose beat seems to be precisely the intersection of US and Israeli covert ops) seems to suggest that our drones have been surveilling now-dead Iranian scientists.

So David Sanger, the (American and Israeli) intelligence community’s chief mouthpiece to boast about their latest victories against Iran, by-lined this story from Boston (rather than his home base of DC) to tell us the Sentinel drone was surveilling Iran’s suspected nuclear sites, using its isotope-sniffing powers.

In addition to video cameras, independent experts say the drone almost certainly carries communications intercept equipment and sensors that can detect tiny amounts of radioactive isotopes and other chemicals that can give away nuclear research.

But the real advantage of the Sentinel drone, Sanger and Shane tell us, is the ability to see who’s onsite when.

While an orbiting surveillance satellite can observe a location for only a few minutes at a time, a drone can loiter for hours, sending a video feed as people move about the site. Such a “pattern of life,” as it is called, can give crucial clues to the nature of the work being done, the equipment used and the size of the work force.

Actually, we knew that. Here’s the kind of information the Sentinel presumably gave us about Osama bin Laden’s compound.

Agents, determining that Kuwaiti was living there, used aerial surveillance to keep watch on the compound, which consisted of a three-story main house, a guesthouse, and a few outbuildings. They observed that residents of the compound burned their trash, instead of putting it out for collection, and concluded that the compound lacked a phone or an Internet connection. Kuwaiti and his brother came and went, but another man, living on the third floor, never left. When this third individual did venture outside, he stayed behind the compound’s walls. Some analysts speculated that the third man was bin Laden, and the agency dubbed him the Pacer.

In our assassination of Osama bin Laden, it seems, we used the Sentinel to learn the daily routine of everyone in the compound. Just the kind of information we’ve used to assassinate key Iranian scientists.

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The Non-Counterterrorist Drone Loophole: Did Clapper Admit We Targeted Iranian Scientists?

One of the most interesting exchanges in yesterday’s Threat Assessment hearing occurred between Ron Wyden and James Clapper–with David Petraeus, whom Wyden calls out, observing silently (the exchange starts at 1:01).

Wyden: Let me wrap up with you Director Clapper on an issue that I’ve asked about before at this open hearing. General Petraeus knows about this, this is a question about the use of force and a speech that was given by Mr. Koh, Harold Koh of the State Department, a lawyer. Let me note at the beginning it’s a matter of public record that the intelligence community sometimes takes direct action against terrorists and this direct action sometimes involves the use of lethal force. And as you know Director [sic] Koh gave a speech outlining our policy with respect to various terrorist groups, talked about detention, talked about the use of unmanned drones and noted that under US law, the use of force against terrorist groups is permitted by Congressional authorization, while under international law it is permitted by America’s right to self defense. But in spite of having asked about this on a number of occasions, and General Petraeus, you know that I, too, share the Chair’s view with respect to your working with us here on this committee and your being forthright, I’ve not been able to get an answer to this specific question. And I would like to know whether that speech that Mr. Koh gave contained unstated exceptions for intelligence agencies?

Clapper: With respect to counterterrorism, it does not. So it applies to all components of the government involved in counterterrorism be it military or non-military.

Wyden: Are there other exceptions other than counterterrorist activities?

Clapper: I believe his speech dealt with counterterrorism.

Wyden: So you believe that his speech, the text of the speech–cause this would be important–applies to all agencies. It applies to the intelligence community, his entire speech, the overall thrust of the speech applies to all of the intelligence community.

Clapper: With respect to counterterrorism, yes.

Now, it seems clear that Wyden is referring to the portion of Koh’s speech that deals with drone strikes, which is reproduced in full below the line.

And my impression is that Wyden–who emphasizes targeting terrorists when he asks the question–was asking whether there was an exception to the principles of distinction and proportionality for the CIA when they used drones. Or, to put it more plainly, Wyden seemed to be asking whether the CIA could use drones to target civilians.

My guess is that Petraeus has refused to answer that question not to hide a CIA exception for the use of drones with civilian terrorists (say, with Anwar al-Awlaki) but rather to hide the CIA involvement in targeting of civilians in other contexts.

That’s the implication of Clapper’s response: “with the respect to counterterrorism, yes.” And Wyden’s expression as he delivers the question, “Are there other exceptions other than counterterrorist activities?” is worth watching.

There may be further confusion stemming from the language of Koh’s speech. While he was, in this section, specifically addressing “the Law of 9/11,” he does claim that his comments apply to “all of our operations involving the use of force.” Clapper’s caveat seems to belie that claim.

Koh’s language also addressed the use of force generally, not just those dealing with drones. We do use drones for missions outside of counterterrorism–including in drug operations, so Clapper’s caveat might suggest the CIA can target civilians in such context.

But if I had to guess, I’d say this had to deal with non-drone use of lethal force, possibly the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists. Was Clapper suggesting CIA targeted civilian nuclear scientists?

And while we may not have attached the bombs to Iranian civilian scientists’ cars (though our surrogates did), remember the suggestions that our drone surveillance of Iran was involved in those assassinations.

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