Eric Schmitt & Michael E. Schmidt – New York Times January 29, 2012
A month after the last American troops left Iraq, the State Department is operating a small fleet of surveillance drones here to help protect the United States Embassy and consulates, as well as American personnel. Some senior Iraqi officials expressed outrage at the program, saying the unarmed aircraft are an affront to Iraqi sovereignty.
The program was described by the department’s diplomatic security branch in a little-noticed section of its most recent annual report and outlined in broad terms in a two-page online prospectus for companies that might bid on a contract to manage the program. It foreshadows a possible expansion of unmanned drone operations into the diplomatic arm of the American government; until now they have been mainly the province of the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency.
American contractors say they have been told that the State Department is considering to field unarmed surveillance drones in the future in a handful of other potentially “high-threat” countries, including Indonesia and Pakistan, and in Afghanistan after the bulk of American troops leave in the next two years. State Department officials say that no decisions have been made beyond the drone operations in Iraq.
The drones are the latest example of the State Department’s efforts to take over functions in Iraq that the military used to perform. Some 5,000 private security contractors now protect the embassy’s 11,000-person staff, for example, and typically drive around in heavily armored military vehicles.
When embassy personnel move throughout the country, small helicopters buzz over the convoys to provide support in case of an attack. Often, two contractors armed with machine guns are tethered to the outside of the helicopters. The State Department began operating some drones in Iraq last year on a trial basis, and stepped up their use after the last American troops left Iraq in December, taking the military drones with them.
The United States, which will soon begin taking bids to manage drone operations in Iraq over the next five years, needs formal approval from the Iraqi government to use such aircraft here, Iraqi officials said. Such approval may be untenable given the political tensions between the two countries. Now that the troops are gone, Iraqi politicians often denounce the United States in an effort to rally support from their followers.
A senior American official said that negotiations were under way to obtain authorization for the current drone operations, but Ali al-Mosawi, a top adviser to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki; Iraq’s national security adviser, Falih al-Fayadh; and the acting minister of interior, Adnan al-Asadi, all said in interviews that they had not been consulted by the Americans.
Mr. Asadi said that he opposed the drone program: “Our sky is our sky, not the U.S.A.’s sky.”
The Pentagon and C.I.A. have been stepping up their use of armed Predator and Reaper drones to conduct strikes against militants in places like Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. More recently, the United States has expanded drone bases in Ethiopia, the Seychelles and a secret location in the Arabian Peninsula.
The State Department drones, by contrast, carry no weapons and are meant to provide data and images of possible hazards, like public protests or roadblocks, to security personnel on the ground, American officials said. They are much smaller than armed drones, with wingspans as short as 18 inches, compared with 55 feet for the Predators.
The State Department has about two dozen drones in Iraq, but many are used only for spare parts, the officials said.
The United States Embassy in Baghdad referred all questions about the drones to the State Department in Washington.
The State Department confirmed the existence of the program, calling the devices unmanned aerial vehicles, but it declined to provide details. “The department does have a U.A.V. program,” it said in a statement without referring specifically to Iraq. “The U.A.V.’s being utilized by the State Department are not armed, nor are they capable of being armed.”
When the American military was still in Iraq, white blimps equipped with sensors hovered over many cities, providing the Americans with surveillance abilities beyond the dozens of armed and unarmed drones used by the military. But the blimps came down at the end of last year as the military completed its withdrawal. Anticipating this, the State Department began developing its own drone operations.
According to the most recent annual report of the department’s diplomatic security branch, issued last June, the branch worked with the Pentagon and other agencies in 2010 to research the use of low-altitude, long-endurance unmanned drones “in high-threat locations such as Iraq and Afghanistan.”
The document said that the program was tested in Iraq in December 2010. “The program will watch over State Department facilities and personnel and assist regional security officers with high-threat mission planning and execution,” the document said.
In the online prospectus, called a “presolicitation notice,” the State Department last September outlined a broad requirement to provide “worldwide Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (U.A.V.) support services.” American officials said this was to formalize the initial program.
The program’s goal is “to provide real-time surveillance of fixed installations, proposed movement routes and movement operations,” referring to American convoy movements. In addition, the program’s mission is “improving security in high-threat or potentially high-threat environments.”
The document does not identify specific countries, but contracting specialists familiar with the program say that it focuses initially on operations in Iraq. That is “where the need is greatest,” said one contracting official who spoke on condition of anonymity, because the contract is still in its early phase.
In the next few weeks, the department is expected to issue a more detailed proposal, requesting bids from private contractors to operate the drones. That document, the department said Friday, will describe the scope of the program, including the overall cost and other specifics.
While the preliminary proposal has drawn interest from more than a dozen companies, some independent specialists who are familiar with drone operations expressed skepticism about the State Department’s ability to manage such a complicated and potentially risky enterprise.
“The State Department needs to get through its head that it is not an agency adept at running military-style operations,” said Peter W. Singer, a scholar at the Brookings Institution and the author of “Wired for War,” a book about military robotics.
The American plans to use drones in the air over Iraq have also created yet another tricky issue for the two countries, as Iraq continues to assert its sovereignty after the nearly nine-year occupation. Many Iraqis remain deeply skeptical of the United States, feelings that were reinforced last week when the Marine who was the so-called ringleader of the 2005 massacre of 24 Iraqis in the village of Haditha avoided prison time and was sentenced to a reduction in rank.
“If they are afraid about their diplomats being attacked in Iraq, then they can take them out of the country,” said Mohammed Ghaleb Nasser, 57, an engineer from the northern city of Mosul.
Hisham Mohammed Salah, 37, an Internet cafe owner in Mosul, said he did not differentiate between surveillance drones and the ones that fire missiles. “We hear from time to time that drone aircraft have killed half a village in Pakistan and Afghanistan under the pretext of pursuing terrorists,” Mr. Salah said. “Our fear is that will happen in Iraq under a different pretext.”
Still, Ghanem Owaid Nizar Qaisi, 45, a teacher from Diyala, said that he doubted that the Iraqi government would stop the United States from using the drones. “I believe that Iraqi politicians will accept it, because they are weak,” he said.