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

Getting caught every once in a while is all part of the intelligence game.

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).

Here's how it works. Senior policymakers provide tasking guidance to the IC through the National Intelligence Priorities Framework (NIPF), which is the "sole mechanism for establishing national intelligence priorities," according to an Office of the Directorate of National Intelligence (ODNI) directive. The NIPF process is coordinated by the ODNI, and results in a matrix listing the intelligence priorities of policymakers based on topics covered at National Security Council meetings and discussions with cabinet officials. The NIPF is updated every six months and signed by the president. As was described to me recently, the matrix consists of some 30 issues of concern for collection ranked in horizontal bands, running from A (most important) to C (least important), with some 180 state and non-state groups listed on the vertical axis. Finally, the matrix is color-coded based on the degree of current priority. After the ranking, the matrix is then translated into specific guidance from the DNI to senior IC managers for allocating collection and analytical resources.

Though the NIPF is highly classified, it is likely that there is no higher priority intelligence target than Iran's nuclear program, ballistic-missile sites, and air-defense system. Given that the Sentinel was reportedly on a CIA mission, there is certainly a presidential memoranda of notification (or several) that broadly authorizes the covert collection efforts in Iran. Moreover, assuredly the Senate and House intelligence committees have been briefed often and thoroughly about the CIA's use of the Sentinel over Iran.

Since Iran is among the most important intelligence collection priority, it would only make sense for the United States to utilize its most advanced capabilities, just as the U-2 spy plane was a half-century ago. The United States has reportedly been flying drones of various capabilities and missions over Iran since as early as April 2004, some of which Iranians believed to be UFOs. The following year, Iran protested the drone flights to the United States through Swiss diplomatic channels, and via letters to the U.N. Security Council, demanding "an end to such unlawful acts." The RQ-170 Sentinel drone itself, pictures of which were first published in 2007, had flown from Afghan airbases over Iran "for years," according to the Associated Press. (Of course, Iran also flies surveillance drones against U.S. military assets, as demonstrated in this grainy video of the USS Ronald Reagan.)

That one of many drones dedicated to collecting intelligence over Iran has fallen into Iranian hands is also expected given the law of averages. Drones crash at rates higher than manned aircraft for any number of reasons, including due to human error, incorrect information, network interference, system failure, weather, or being shot down. As a former official warned: "It was never a matter of whether we were going to lose one but when."

With an array of advanced sensors and unmatched speed and loiter time, the RQ-170s flying above Iran probably had four collection priorities: 1) The location and activities of all known and suspected nuclear sites, including air sensors to retrieve remote traces of tell-tale signs of nuclear activities, such as krypton-85; 2) The location and activities of ballistic-missile production facilities and test ranges; 3) The location of training camps for terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah; 4) The location and technical characteristics of Iran's integrated air-defense system, including the transmitting power and spatial coverage of radars and performance characteristics of surface-to-air missiles. Any information was obtained was assuredly corroborated by multiple other intelligence collection platforms.

While intelligence collection in Iran will undoubtedly suffer somewhat, the primary concern regarding the crash is the prospect of Iran providing the Sentinel to other foreign governments. Iran's semi-official Mehr news agency reported "that Russian and Chinese officials have asked for permission to inspect the U.S. spy drone." This prospect is likely given historical precedent: In 1998, Chinese officials reportedly visited Khost, Afghanistan, to purchase intact Tomahawk cruise missiles that failed to explode in an U.S. attack on Osama bin Laden's hideout. The following year, Chinese intelligence agents reportedly bought the wreckage from a downed U.S. stealth F-117 Nighthawk, some of which might have been reverse-engineered for China's J-20 stealth fighter.

When the ill-fated U-2 was lost over the Soviet Union, its superior replacement, the A-12 OXCART, was already well under development at the ultra-secret Skunk Works facilities -- so the U-2 was no huge loss. Similarly, the Sentinel's downing will only be a temporary setback. As Aviation Week reported, the Sentinel's sensor package considered "so invaluable when it debuted in Afghanistan about two years ago is considered outdated." The hyper-spectral sensor capabilities mounted on future stealth drones will make the RQ-170 Sentinel seem quaint. When those future drones also unfortunately fall onto the territory of Iran or other adversaries, people will be surprised and unnecessarily alarmed then, too.

National Security

The Dictator's Survival Guide

Seven lessons the world's remaining autocrats can learn from Qaddafi's mistakes.

Somewhere, perhaps in Tripoli, his tribal home of Sirte, or perhaps a secret submarine headed for Caracas, Muammar al-Qaddafi sits amid an ever-shrinking cadre of loyalists, wondering how it all went wrong. He had implemented all of the time-tested tactics of coup-proofing: exploiting familial, ethnic, and religious ties, creating overlapping security forces that monitored each other, and showering money on his potential opponents. He disemboweled his own army so that it could not hurt him and then hired mercenaries and thugs to brutally put down his rebellious people. He took to the airwaves and streets, taunting his opponents, blaming outside influence, and promising swift retribution. For awhile, it seemed that stalemate was still a viable possibility. And yet on the night of Aug. 21, he was reduced to issuing impotent, rambling audio messages as his former subjects closed in around him.

We know now that it has all gone horribly wrong for Africa's longest-serving dictator. But what, exactly, went wrong?

As Qaddafi stews, he would do well to identify March 17 as the date when his grip on power began to deteriorate. That's when the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1973, which provided the legal basis for the NATO-led intervention in Libya. Without the 7,505 strike sorties that NATO and its allies flew during the conflict, the images of joyous Libyans retaking the capital of Tripoli on Aug. 22 would never have been possible.

For nervous dictators across the world watching events unfold in Libya, the primary lesson should therefore be to do everything possible to avoid an external military intervention. Of course, this is easier said than done: Western powers have varied their reactions and responses toward brutal regimes throughout the Arab Spring. Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough said as much shortly after the beginning of the Libya intervention, when he announced, "We don't make decisions about questions like intervention based on consistency or precedent."

While dictators can't eliminate the possibility of foreign military intervention, they can certainly minimize its likelihood. To do so, self-interested autocrats should immediately integrate these seven tactics into their dictator survival guide.

Don't announce your plans. This may be tough, but you're better served keeping your mouth shut. This may have been Qaddafi's most serious mistake: On March 17, even as talks continued at the United Nations about the proper response to events in Libya, he appeared on state television to address the "sons of Benghazi." In a rambling, 3,000-word, 20-minute speech, the Libyan dictator said that his forces would reach Benghazi that night. "We will find you in your closets," he said to the rebels, vowing to show "no mercy or clemency" for foreign fighters, Islamists, or traitors.

Although some U.S. officials continue to misquote Qaddafi's remarks by saying that he promised to hunt down civilian protesters "like rats," the speech catalyzed Barack Obama's administration to support a limited military intervention into the civil war. As Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg noted in a prepared statement before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, "we had little choice but to take him at his word."

So, keep your plans under wraps. This is a lesson that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has learned well. Faced with escalating international pressure, the dictator in Damascus gave an inoffensive, if rather dull, interview to Syrian state television on Aug. 21 that touted his regime's promised reforms. Rather than threatening to kill traitors to the regime, he blandly noted that "there are security situations that require the interference of security institutions." Who could object to whatever that means?

Ernesto Ruscio/Getty Images

Blame "others." Obviously, these protests aren't your fault. "Your" people, of course, have enjoyed your wisdom and steady hand for decades, so they must now be infected by foreign agents. Emphasize that the vast majority of the population still supports you and that the protest movement is being financed and supported by foreign intelligence agencies, Western media, Israel, George Soros, 83-year old nonviolence guru Gene Sharp, or "the bearded ones" -- Islamic terrorists. Whenever possible, deflect criticism toward external forces.

The regime of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak made a last-ditch, concerted effort at playing the "foreigner blame game," as Human Rights Watch emergencies director Peter Bouckaert termed it. Bouckaert described how paramilitary forces were directed to attack "an alliance of Israeli Mossad spies, American agents, Iranian and Afghan intelligence, Hamas provocateurs, and other sinister elements." Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman also claimed that the protests in Tahrir Square were the work of a "conspiracy" of unnamed "foreign influences," while Mubarak announced his resignation by defiantly stating that he would never "listen to foreign dictations, whatever their sources, pretexts, or justifications were."

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Control the media. As you can imagine, nervous dictators already know this tactic well. In Freedom House's latest Freedom of the Press assessment, released in May, the 10 worst-rated countries for press freedoms were model dictatorships such as Belarus, Burma, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Like these autocrats, you should try to prevent the world from discovering what's going on by denying visas to foreign journalists and photographers, cordoning them off in luxury hotels, harassing and detaining them for questioning, and even, on rare occasion, executing them. Naturally, most local media are already on your payroll, or in jail.

Unfortunately for you, the source of news about your regime's misrule increasingly comes from your citizens themselves. Since the protest videos that sparked the revolution in Tunisia in mid-December, blogs, text messages, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have amplified and spread dissenting voices and vivid images. If you need advice from an authoritarian colleague on how to block and monitor these tools, you should definitely call Beijing, where U.S. technology companies provide the capabilities to filter what goes into and comes out of China. They don't call it the "Great Firewall" for nothing -- it is truly impressive and inspiring.


Don't use air power. It's awfully tempting to bomb your own people, but the blowback isn't worth it. (That's what tanks are for, right?) Advocates of protecting civilian populations with military force have consistently supported imposing no-fly zones. Some of the same proponents of the no-fly zone over Libya, such as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, columnist Nicholas Kristof, and retired Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Merrill McPeak, had all earlier supported a similar step in Sudan due to the atrocities in Darfur.

In the case of Libya, even though the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, acknowledged in early March that "we've ... not been able to confirm that any of the Libyan aircraft have fired on their own people," intervention supporters demanded the imposition of a no-fly zone. When asked why the United States would not support a no-fly zone on behalf of civilians being killed by regimes in Ivory Coast or Syria, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton replied, "Well ... there's not an air force being used." Air power may be effective, but it will draw international approbation and make intervention more likely.


Be a U.S. or Russian ally. Let's face it: You need a big friend with a veto on the U.N. Security Council. Great powers rhetorically endorse universal values of human rights and freedom -- up until the moment that those values conflict with their own broader strategic interests. As former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, "Our values and principles apply to all countries in terms of peaceful protest ... [but] our response in each country will have to be tailored to that country and to the circumstances peculiar to that country." 

Bahrain's ruling regime profited immensely from this tactic: The subdued U.S. reaction to its use of violence against peaceful protesters was due to the fact that it provides a home port for the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. Washington did little more than scold Manama.

But if the United States (with its pesky respect for human rights) is skeptical of your intentions, Russia presents a promising alternative. While President Dmitry Medvedev may have scant military forces to project into your region, he can be counted on to obstruct passage of U.N. Security Council resolutions that endorse outside intervention. In the case of Syria, Medvedev held up a resolution condemning Assad, because he was worried it would be "a dead ringer for Resolution 1973," which he believed had been "turned into a scrap of paper to cover up a pointless military operation." If Western powers want the legitimacy that only a Security Council resolution can confer (sorry, Arab League!), it's important to have a friend in Moscow with a veto that has your name all over it.

Mandel Ngan - Pool/Getty Images


Make sure your enemies don't ask for help. Buy them off (or worse) if need be, but make sure they keep their mouths shut. The last thing you need is for foreign powers to get a sense that a democratic alternative exists in your country or that your people would cheer on a Western-led military intervention.

Although anti-Assad Syrians haven't been silent by any measure, their rejection of foreign intervention has been one major factor that has forestalled serious consideration of a military option there. Last week, TV show host Stephen Colbert asked Ambassador Rice why the United States had not intervened to save the lives of Syrians. She replied that Robert Ford, the U.S. envoy in Damascus, had heard from the Syrian opposition that "what they want from the United States is more leadership, political pressure, and sanctions, but very clearly no military intervention."

If your enemies do ask for outside military intervention, pray that it will be limited in scope. Six days before the NATO-led intervention began on March 19, rebel leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil notified the world that "We want a no-fly zone and a naval blockade ... [but] we don't want boots on the ground." Remember: The longer you can hold on to power -- whether you're fighting internal protests or external intervention -- the more likely your enemies will tire, or begin fighting each other. In the case of Qaddafi, however, he just couldn't hold on long enough.


By all means, get the bomb. This one's a no-brainer -- just ask the Dear Leader in Pyongyang. In the history of the nuclear age, no country that has possessed nuclear weapons has ever been successfully invaded. After all, nothing deters outside meddling more than an assured retaliatory nuclear strike.

This was another major Qaddafi blunder: In 2003 and 2004, Libya renounced its nuclear weapons programs, on which it had spent around $200 million, and handed thousands of uranium enrichment centrifuges and nuclear weapons blueprints to the United States. Qaddafi's daughter, Aisha, promised that the lesson to take from Western powers bombing Libya today is that "every country that has weapons of mass destruction [should] keep them or make more so they will not meet the same fate as Libya." You can be sure that Tehran has heard that lesson loud and clear.