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Robert Bennett: Reports about drone had a purpose

FILE -- In an Oct. 25, 2007 file photo a Predator drone unmanned aerial vehicle takes off on a U.S. Customs Border Patrol mission from Fort Huachuca, Ariz.  The Federal Aviation Administration has been asked to issue flying rights for a range of pilotless
FILE -- In an Oct. 25, 2007 file photo a Predator drone unmanned aerial vehicle takes off on a U.S. Customs Border Patrol mission from Fort Huachuca, Ariz. The Federal Aviation Administration has been asked to issue flying rights for a range of pilotless planes to carry out civilian and law-enforcement functions but has been hesitant to act for safety reasons. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin/file)
Ross D. Franklin, AP

Recently a story appeared on the front page of The Washington Post, describing how a U.S. surveillance drone had been sent over Iranian territory about three years ago. Its mission was to search out and photograph the various locations where the Iranian nuclear program was going forward. It traveled some 600 miles, returned with a treasure trove of intelligence, and, as far as U.S. officials could determine from monitoring its flight, did so without the Iranians having any awareness that it had been there.

The article went on to say that this was the first of many such flights, all of them equally successful. The conclusion drawn was that we know a very great deal about the Iranian nuclear program — where it is and how far along it has come — and the strong implication was that if Iran takes it toward the development of a weapon, we will know it immediately and act accordingly.

I am no longer eligible to receive classified briefings on such matters, so what follows is speculation on my part. I am guessing that this article was planted and aimed primarily at two specific audiences — Iran and Israel.

First, the Iranians. Their leaders cannot be pleased to discover that they have been spied on so completely and covertly for such a long period of time. The message sent to them is, "You have no secrets that we do not know. You have no room in which to maneuver without our being fully prepared to respond."

If they are rational people, such a message will cause them to think very carefully before they proceed toward weaponizing the work they are doing. Their economy is already being impacted by the sanctions that have been imposed on them; this message tells them that we are ready to hurt them even more if they move in the wrong direction.

Then, the Israelis. Their leaders are understandably nervous about living close to a nation whose president repeatedly declares that his purpose in life is to "wipe Israel off the map." Israel has the military capacity to attack Iran and at least cripple its nuclear progress; it believes that delay in doing so only increases the chances that Iran will be able to disperse and hide enough components of the program that Israeli bombs cannot destroy it.

We believe we can afford to wait longer, to give sanctions more time to work on the Iranians, than the Israelis feel they can. American cruise missiles can go deeper, and destroy more effectively, than Israeli bombs. The message the Washington Post story sends to Israel is, "We know more about what is going on in Iran than you do; consult us before you act."

There has also been growing unease in our own political debate about Iran. President Obama went before the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee to declare that an Iranian nuclear weapon was unacceptable, and that he would not allow it to happen. Some in that group have said they don't believe him, so it may well be that the story was aimed at a third audience — the American people. As I said, I am guessing.

Nonetheless, I do not believe the story just happened to break at this particular time. There was nothing in the news cycle that triggered it. I believe the Obama Administration wants to change the dynamic in Iran by informing the world about America's amazing capacity to gather intelligence there, and I think they chose to do so by means of a news story in a paper all the diplomats read.

If I'm right, let's hope it works.

Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.