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Where the Drones Are

Authors: Micah Zenko, Douglas Dillon Fellow, and Emma Welch
May 29, 2012
Foreign Policy

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Tuesday's New York Times features a blockbuster story, based on interviews with some three dozen current and former Obama administration officials, about the White House decision-making process behind the highly controversial U.S. policy of targeted killings. In it, we learn that while there are near-weekly interagency meetings with the 100 or so officials who compile the "kill list," President Barack Obama is intimately involved in individual targeting decisions and most of the estimated 2,000 to 3,000 suspected militants or terrorists killed by the United States outside the battlefield have died via drone strikes.

But Obama's policy of killing by remote control is by no means new. Over the last decade, America's overseas use of drones has expanded exponentially in scope, location, and frequency. Beyond their use across the battlefields of Afghanistan, Libya, and Iraq, U.S. drones have been used to target suspected militants and terrorists in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, as well as to conduct surveillance missions over Colombia, Haiti, Iran, Mexico, North Korea, the Philippines, Turkey, and beyond.

To maximize flight time over these countries, the U.S. military and the CIA require a network of geographically dispersed air bases and the explicit support of host nations. Stationed at these bases are the drones and what's known as the "launch recovery element" -- the personnel who control the drones during take-off and landing, load and unload munitions, and provide routine maintenance. Many drones are based at long-established airfields in host countries that are quietly expanded and modernized by American engineers.

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