Photo Credit: AP

10:41 PM PDT on Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON – In the end, it was a surgical raid by an elite special-forces unit — not a strike from a Predator drone — that took out Osama bin Laden. But on the heels of the United States’ biggest victory yet in the decade-old war on terror, lawmakers say the unmanned spy and attack plane has been a cornerstone of efforts to seek out and destroy the nation’s enemies.

Some argue that it’s also an example of what may seem like an oxymoron these days: a good earmark.

Inland Rep. Jerry Lewis could never have given the foundering Predator program the $400 million boost it needed 15 years ago under the nation’s current policy against earmarks, the oft-criticized spending directives that congressional members, until recently, slipped into federal spending bills.

“While earmarks are off board at this moment, they are not the center of original sin,” said Lewis, R-Redlands. “Predator has played a major role in the challenges we’ve faced in the (Middle East) region.”

Previously used only for clandestine or “black ops” missions, the U.S. Air Force was in the process of developing unmanned spy drones for expanded military use in the early 1990s, but Lewis felt the process had been moving too slowly.

From his seat on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, Lewis, who later rose to the chairmanship of the full committee, attached the funding boost and language requiring the Air Force to speed up development of the drones to a spending bill that ultimately became law.

In the years since, the program has become a staple in the United States’ intelligence-gathering efforts overseas and has been incorporated as a regular component of the Defense Department’s annual budget.


Defense contractor General Atomics builds the planes near San Diego and conducts testing and training exercises in San Bernardino County’s High Desert. The drones, operated out of March Air Reserve Base among other installations, have been updated to carry two laser-guided AGM-114 Hellfire missiles.

“Predator has been invaluable in the war on terror in Iraq , Afghanistan and, obviously, Pakistan,” said Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona, who sits on the House Select Committee on Intelligence. “They can reach out and touch someone in a very special way.”

The program has not been without criticism. Last year, Philip Alston, an international law scholar and Special Rapporteur to the United Nations, issued a report suggesting that drone attacks and other targeted killings, particularly those orchestrated from within the intelligence community, can blur the lines of what is allowable under international humanitarian law.

Unlike formal military forces, intelligence agencies do not have immunity for their actions, he posited.

“Thus, CIA personnel could be prosecuted for murder under the domestic law of any country in which they conduct targeted drone killings,” Alston wrote.

Alston also warned of the potential for a “Playstation mentality” among drone operators, who “are based thousands of miles away from the battlefield, and undertake operations entirely through computer screens and remote audiofeed.”

But neither those concerns nor the reported loss of dozens of Predator drones, which cost $3 million to $4 million for the older models and top out at roughly $12 million for the newer ones, have stemmed use of the planes.

The extent to which the Predator program was used to track bin Laden in recent years is classified.

In a briefing with reporters this week, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the compound where bin Laden was killed had been under constant surveillance since December, but she declined to say whether Predator drones were used in the final phases of the manhunt.

“It’s been a positive program,” Feinstein, D-Calif., said after the briefing. “That’s all I’m going to say.”

During the briefing, Feinstein lauded President Barack Obama for choosing the riskier method of using a team of Navy Seals to apprehend bin Laden, rather than blowing up the entire compound from above.

“You know, they could have sent a Predator with Hellfire missiles and killed everyone in the place,” Feinstein said. “They didn’t do it. And so it was a very gutsy mission.”


Though Predator did not take center stage in Sunday’s raid, the drones have made a big difference in the Afghan war, said Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas , who chaired the House Intelligence Committee for four years.

“These last two years or so of ramped-up operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, particularly that border region, with Predators have paid these kinds of dividends that we saw last night,” he said Monday.

And the fact that the drones were funded through earmarks should not be forgotten, Reyes said.

“Don’t think we haven’t reminded our colleagues. I happen to be on the other side of that no-earmark ban. The Predator is one example,” he said, also listing earmarks for mine-resistant armored vehicles and improvised explosive device detectors as valuable.

“So I think there’s a compelling case to be made that earmarks, done correctly, definitely have a place in our system,” he said.

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