During the four-day siege of the In Amenas gas field, which culminated in an opaque takeover by the Algerian military that reportedly killed dozens, several pundits and journalists asked why the U.S. military did not send drones or special operations forces to free the hostages or kill the Islamist militants holding them. One CNN anchor asked Mike Rogers, who chairs the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, "I'm curious as to your perceptions whether the U.S. is taking too much of a back seat." The following day, another CNN anchor seemed puzzled as to why Algeria would only permit the United States to fly unarmed drones over its territory, to which Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr noted: "The U.S. view is that the Algerians would have to grant permission for U.S. troops, U.S. military force, to go in there."
CNN should not have been surprised. Neither the Bush nor Obama administrations received blanket permission to transit Algerian airspace with surveillance planes or drones; instead, they received authorization only on a case-by-case basis and with advance notice. According to journalist Craig Whitlock, the U.S. military relies on a fleet of civilian-looking unarmed aircraft to spy on suspected Islamist groups in North Africa, because they are less conspicuous -- and therefore less politically sensitive for host nations -- than drones. Moreover, even if the United States received flyover rights for armed drones, it has been unable to secure a base in southern Europe or northern Africa from which it would be permitted to conduct drone strikes; and presently, U.S. armed drones cannot be launched and recovered from naval platforms.
According to Hollywood movies or television dramas, with its immense intelligence collection and military strike capabilities, the United States can locate, track, and kill anyone in the world. This misperception is continually reinvigorated by the White House's, the CIA's, and the Pentagon's close cooperation with movie and television studios. For example, several years before the CIA even started conducting non-battlefield drone strikes, it was recommending the tactic as a plotline in the short-lived (2001-2003) drama "The Agency." As the show's writer and producer later revealed: "The Hellfire missile thing, they suggested that. I didn't come up with this stuff. I think they were doing a public opinion poll by virtue of giving me some good ideas." Similarly, as of November there were at least ten movies about the Navy SEALs in production or in theaters, which included so much support from the Pentagon that one film even starred active-duty SEALs.
The Obama administration's lack of a military response in Algeria reflects how sovereign states routinely constrain U.S. intelligence and military activities. As the U.S. Air Force Judge Advocate General's Air Force Operations and the Law guidebook states: "The unauthorized or improper entry of foreign aircraft into a state's national airspace is a violation of that state's sovereignty.... Except for overflight of international straits and archipelagic sea lanes, all nations have complete discretion in regulating or prohibiting flights within their national airspace." Though not sexy and little reported, deploying CIA drones or special operations forces requires constant behind-the-scenes diplomacy: with very rare exceptions -- like the Bin Laden raid -- the U.S. military follows the rules of the world's other 194 sovereign, independent states.
These rules come in many forms. For example, basing rights agreements can limit the number of civilian, military, and contractor personnel at an airbase or post; what access they have to the electromagnetic spectrum; what types of aircraft they can fly; how many sorties they can conduct per day; when those sorties can occur and how long they can last; whether the aircraft can drop bombs on another country and what sort of bombs; and whether they can use lethal force in self-defense. When the United States led the enforcement of the northern no-fly zone over Iraq from the Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey from 1991 to 2003, a Turkish military official at the rank of lieutenant colonel or higher was always on board U.S. Air Force AWACS planes, monitoring the airspace to assure that the United States did not violate its highly restrictive basing agreement.