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Iran Has America's Super Spy Drone. So What?

Author: Micah Zenko, Douglas Dillon Fellow
December 9, 2011
Foreign Policy

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On May 1, 1960, an American U-2 surveillance plane was downed by a SA-2 surface-to-air missile over the Sverdlovsk area of the Soviet Union. The U-2's mission -- code-named Operation Grand Slam -- was to photograph Soviet ballistic missile sites to inform the missile-gap debate raging in Washington. Though Grand Slam was the 24th deep-penetration flight over Soviet territory in four years, and CIA analysts warned of improvements in Soviet air-defense radars and missiles, the risks were deemed worth taking. As Secretary of State Christian Herter had noted in a plea to President Dwight Eisenhower to resume the U-2 flights: "The intelligence objective outweighs the danger of getting trapped."

Is history repeating itself? On Thursday, Iranian state television showed two men in military uniforms running their hands across the swept-wing frame of what the broadcast claimed was an RQ-170 Sentinel drone. An unnamed U.S. official said with "high confidence" that the drone displayed was the Sentinel that had gone missing 140 miles inside of Iran. (Only days earlier, a senior official had claimed: "The Iranians have a pile of rubble and are trying to figure what they have.") Several officials have acknowledged that the drone was under CIA control on an intelligence collection mission inside Iran.

It is understandable that an event with headlines that include the words "Iran," "drone," and "nuclear" generate a great deal of attention. Yet, for all the bytes and ink expended in discussing the downed Sentinel drone, it is neither surprising nor particularly revealing. As was true in 1960, the benefits of spying on Iran outweigh the dangers of the program being revealed or a downed aircraft, and are what Americans should expect from the $55 billion spent last year on national intelligence. To understand why this downed drone is such an ordinary event requires an understanding the day-to-day process of the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC).

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