Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars, a new book by London-based investigative journalist Chris Woods, traces the intertwined technological, legal and political history of drones as they evolved on the battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan and in the covert U.S. targeted killing campaign.
Woods is especially thorough on the issue of civilian casualties, arguing that in pursuit of the short-term goal of eliminating suspected terrorists or militants on the battlefield, both the military and CIA were slow to grasp the strategic damage done by civilian deaths. Woods also argues that the controversy over the number of civilians killed by drones stemmed from the United States’ elastic definition of who could be targeted, an issue not just in the CIA’s secret strikes, but also across the military.
U.S. drones have now fired on Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya and Syria, and are a feature of war that is here to stay. Their global use by the United States has set precedents “pushing hard at the boundaries of international law,” and the challenge, Woods writes, will be in “convincing others not to follow Washington’s own recent rulebook.”
The book is densely informative and includes interviews with drone operators and intelligence officials, a notable number of them on the record. Here are six new details that Woods unearthed in his reporting:
- No one is exactly sure who ordered the very first drone strike in Afghanistan, in October 2001. The failed attempt to kill Taliban leader Mullah Omar was a collision of orders between the CIA, Air Force, Central Command and the White House. Retired Air Force Lieutenant General Dave Deptula says that when he saw the drone’s missile hit, he exclaimed, “Who the fuck did that?” (The book’s description of the first drone strike was recently excerpted in The Atlantic.)
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