Civilian casualties have always been a PR problem for American military and intelligence forces, but outrage in Pakistan and Afghanistan from recent death tolls threatens to further destabilize the region. Amid criticism of air strikes, reporters are getting unprecedented access to one of the more controversial weapons in the U.S. arsenal – the unmanned drone. Noah Shachtman, contributing editor for Wired magazine, was invited by the military to see for himself how it works.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. Civilian casualties from air strikes have always been a PR problem for the U.S. military and intelligence agencies, but recent civilian death tolls in Pakistan and Afghanistan have outraged those populations and threaten to hamper the fight against the Taliban. There have also been critics at home. In an op-ed last weekend in The New York Times David Kilcullen, former senior advisor to General David Petraeus on counterinsurgency, called for a moratorium on CIA drone strikes in Pakistan. As a means of countering the bad press and with an eye to influencing U.S. air war doctrine, the U.S. Air Force is giving reporters unprecedented access to one of the most important and controversial weapons in its arsenal, the unmanned drone. In a 60 Minutes segment two weeks ago, reporter Lara Logan reported from Creech Air Force Base outside of Las Vegas where the drones are controlled.
LARA LOGAN: Every so often in the history of war, a new weapon comes along that fundamentally rewrites the rules of battle. This is a story about a revolution in unmanned aviation that's doing just that.
BOB GARFIELD: Noah Shactman, contributing editor at Wired Magazine, was also given access to the drones at Creech. He joins us now. Noah, welcome to the show.
NOAH SHACTMAN: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Before we get to discussing drones and piloted aircraft, I want to talk about the general PR problem attendant to asymmetrical warfare, namely that the bad guys are lurking within the civilian population, and the kind of calculations you have to make before you start firing missiles at them.
NOAH SHACTMAN: Yeah, it's a huge problem. You know, if these guys were just out in the open, kind of gathering in masses, like German troops would have during World War II, there wouldn't really be a PR problem and we'd just send the drones after 'em and bomb the crap out of them. But because they are hiding among civilian populations and blending in to civilian populations, and because some of the militants might themselves be civilians one day and militants the next, it's very hard to separate them out. And the result, far too often, is civilian casualties. And every time there are civilian casualties it's another PR coup for the Taliban.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, even though we have seen this again and again, whether it's in the Israeli invasion of Gaza in Hamas' tactics or, you know, even the Serbs when NATO was bombing Belgrade and the command in control was in the basement of hospitals, the anger always accrues to the attacker, not to those hiding within civilian populations. Why does it always work?
NOAH SHACTMAN: I think one of the reasons it works is because the U.S. has done such a good job at awing the world with its superior technology that they assume that our high tech ultra-precise weapons from the air hit exactly where we want them to hit and hit exactly who we want them to hit. And so, while people on the ground in the Balkans or in Southwest Asia assume that a bullet goes astray or that a rocket-propelled grenade might go astray, there is the sense that the American drones and the American manned aircraft are so precise that one of their bombs couldn't possibly go astray.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, in your piece in Wired you observed how infatuated the press has become with the drones and how they kind of got sucked in to this PR exercise by the Air Force. But who is the target for the stories that come out after, you know, open access to Creech Air Force Base?
NOAH SHACTMAN: Okay, so I think there are two charm offensives. Charm offensive number one is being waged, very quietly, and in whispers, by the CIA. And they're the ones controlling the drones over Pakistan, and they want to tell reporters on the sly that hey, these things are working, and so, therefore, you should let us continue this and don't put pressure on us. Charm offensive number two is from the Air Force, and they are letting some reporters, myself included, to what are secret operations. But I think that that charm offensive is almost in response to reporters' questions. I was hanging out with a bunch of other defense reporters recently, and they were joking that the only things their editors were interested in were pirates, drones and "don't ask, don't tell," which led to a bunch of jokes about how "if only there were drones versus gay pirates," some sort of conflict there —
[BOB LAUGHING] — that their editors would be ultimately happy. So I think the Air Force is responding to journalists' requests, and I also think that within the Air Force and within the military, there's a fight over what the future of the military's going to look like. And I think the Air Force is in a vigorous campaign with other military services to get its slice of the military funding pie. And so, it wants to show off what it sees as its biggest contribution to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And that's the drones.
BOB GARFIELD: There was one curious wrinkle in this discussion. That came when former Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne got in touch with your magazine to say that, we are losing the PR war with respect to air strikes, piloted and drone, alike. And he believes that the solution is to let military bloggers have a freer hand. What's he talking about?
NOAH SHACTMAN: At the start of the Iraq War there were dozens and dozens of frontline soldiers who recorded the war and recorded their experiences of the war in their own personal blogs. And so, we got a really interesting view of what was happening on the ground from the soldiers themselves. It wasn't too long afterwards though that the military freaked about this and worried that there was going to be all kinds of security violations because these soldiers had access to the press or to the world, God forbid. And so, there were very stringent regulations put in place that drastically cut down on the number of frontline blogs. And so, now we're in a position today where the soldiers who know the most about these controversial incidents are often the ones that are least able to talk about them. And so, what former Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne suggested is, hey, let these guys blog again, let them talk about hey, if they were caught in a firefight and the only way they were going to survive was for a airplane to drop a 500-pound bomb on some Taliban, let them talk about that experience and, in so doing, regain a foothold in this public relations contest.
BOB GARFIELD: Noah, thank you.
NOAH SHACTMAN: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Noah Schactman is contributing editor at Wired Magazine.