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Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 484

Posted September 16, 2014

For more information contact:
202/994-7000 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu


Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution
By Richard Whittle
(Henry Holt and Company, September 16, 2014)
Buy Now


Related Links

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Selected as a "Best History Book of the Month" - Amazon

Praise for Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution by Richard Whittle:

"Endlessly interesting and full of implication... There's plenty of geekery befitting a Tom Clancy novel to keep readers entertained... Whittle's account comes to a pointed conclusion: drone technology has already changed how we die, but what remains to be seen is how it 'may change the way people live.'"

  • Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Engrossing… [An] impressively researched, thought-provoking history."

  • Publishers Weekly

"Fascinating both as military history and as a look inside a hot contemporary social issue."

  • Booklist

"A brilliant and detailed account of the growing pains of the weapons system of the future. Whittle fully captures the political struggle that almost downed the nascent Predator program."

  • Richard A. Clarke, former National Security Council counter-terrorism director and author of Against All Enemies

"Richard Whittle has delivered what will surely be the definitive history of how the United States came to arm its drones. Both deeply reported and very well written, Predator joins a very short list of books about the future of warfare that will engage any audience, from the specialist to the general reader."

  • Peter Bergen, author of Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad

"Predator is a must-read. Love it or hate it, the armed drone represented a transformation in military technology. Like every revolution, this one had a colorful cast of characters, and Whittle tells their story with the insight and authority of a veteran military journalist, drawing on inside sources in the Air Force, the CIA and defense industry. This book should be on the shelf of anyone who wants to understand military power in the 21st century."

  • David Ignatius, columnist for The Washington Post and author of The Director

"All future attempts to understand the how and why of the drone era's beginnings, and the crucial personalities, disagreements, and decisions that shaped this technology, will be built on Richard Whittle's authoritative and original account. Predator tells the story of the real people whose insights, biases, and experience changed the realities of modern warfare."

  • James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly and author of National Defense

Washington, DC, September 16, 2014 – The Predator drone, though best known as the CIA's primary weapon in the war against Al Qaeda, was merely an unarmed, remote-control intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft when the Defense Department first bought it in 1994. As detailed in Richard Whittle's Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution (Henry Holt and Company, September 16, 2014), the Predator's configuration was derived from drones developed in the 1980s by former Israeli aeronautical engineer Abraham Karem. Documents obtained by Whittle and posted today by the National Security Archive at George Washington University, www.nsarchive.org, confirm key facts about the Predator's transformation by the Air Force into the first armed drone used to stalk and kill individual enemies by remote control at intercontinental range.

This Air Force demonstration video includes a variety of views of Predators taking off and landing, a glimpse inside a ground control station, and scenes from actual combat Hellfire shots, though where they were taken is unidentified.



Document 1: Defense Department, Memorandum from John M. Deutch, "Endurance Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), July 12, 1993

Source: DOD response to FOIA request by Richard Whittle

In early 1993, President Bill Clinton complained that neither the U.S. military nor the intelligence community could find Serb artillery being used to bombard Bosnian civilians in Sarajevo. CIA Director James Woolsey decided his agency should acquire a reconnaissance drone to solve the problem and the CIA soon bought two Gnat 750 unmanned aerial vehicles from San Diego-area company General Atomics. After consulting with Woolsey, Undersecretary of Defense John M. Deutch took a similar step on July 12, 1993, creating a program to develop a drone for the military in the same class as the Gnat 750 but with greater capabilities. Deutch stipulated that this Endurance Unmanned Aerial Vehicle must be able to fly 500 miles from its launch point, stay over a target area at least 24 hours at altitudes of 15,000 to 25,000 feet, carry 400-500 pounds of sensors, and transmit imagery while being flown via satellite. What became known as the "Deutch Memo" outlines in detail why Deutch believed such a drone was needed and how urgently he wanted the aircraft delivered.

A photo taken September 12, 2001, shows the double wide trailer on the CIA campus in Langley, Va., from where the Air Force team piloted the Predator over Afghanistan. (Photo: Google Earth)

Document 2: Office of the Secretary of Defense, Memorandum from William J. Perry, "Assignment of Service Lead for Operation of the Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV)," April 9, 1996

Source: Provided to Richard Whittle by a Predator program participant

Many pilots in the Air Force disdained unmanned aerial vehicles, but the fighter pilot who was that service's chief of staff from 1994-97, General Ronald Fogleman, set out to wrest control of the Predator away from the Army and Navy and secure it for the Air Force. Fogleman saw a worrisome gap looming in the nation's ability to conduct airborne reconnaissance — using aircraft, as opposed to satellites, to gather intelligence from above. Fogleman thought the Army was the wrong service to fly and manage UAVs. He also remembered the abysmal history of an artillery-spotting drone called Aquila, which Congress cancelled in 1988 after the Army had spent 14 years and $1.2 billion on the project without making the Aquila fly properly. Fogleman scored his first bureaucratic victory when Defense Secretary William J. Perry signed a memo making the Air Force the lead service for the Predator.


Document 3: Office of the Air Force Chief of Staff, Memorandum from Col. James G. Clark, "Predator," April 28, 1997

Source: Provided to Richard Whittle by Col. (ret) James G. Clark

On September 2, 1996, the Air Force's 11th Reconnaissance Squadron took over Predator operations from the Army, which had been flying the drone over Bosnia by remote control from Taszar, Hungary, since March 14 of that year. One day short of a month after the Air Force assumed control, one of the three Air Force pilots at Taszar crashed one of the three Predators based there. Over the next three months, Fogleman received a stream of complaints about the Predator from Army leaders in charge of enforcing the Dayton Accords that ended the war in Bosnia. On January 29, 1997, the vice chief of staff of the Army, General Ronald Griffith, even sent a "message to the field" saying Predator support to the 1st Armored Division was "less than satisfactory" in Bosnia. Army commanders said the Predator wasn't in the air often enough to do them much good. The Air Force's Air Combat Command claimed weather was the problem and recommended the Predator unit simply be brought home for the winter and sent back in summer. Others suggested that the pilots the Air Force had assigned to fly the Predator just weren't very good. Fogleman sent a team of officers to investigate under Colonel James G. "Snake" Clark, whose April 28, 1997, report said the Army might be trying to regain control of the Predator from the Air Force.


Document 4: Office of the Air Force Chief of Staff, Talking Points, "Talking Paper on Predator," April 28, 1997

Source: Provided to Richard Whittle by Col. (ret.) James G. Clark

This attachment to Clark's report to Fogleman (Document 3) summarizes key points of discussion regarding problems with the Predator program and offers recommendations.


Inspired by the advent of GPS and his desire to help NATO deter a Soviet invasion of Western Europe, Neal Blue decided General Atomics should develop a kamikaze drone. Displayed at a 1988 air show before the company abandoned it and hired bankrupt Abe Karem, this "poor man's cruise missile" was the first Predator. (Photo courtesy of William Sadler)

Document 5: Office of the Under Secretary of Defense, Memorandum from Jacques S. Gansler, "Initiation of the Transfer of the Predator Program Office from the Navy to the Air Force," April 15, 1997

Source: Provided to Richard Whittle by a program participant

Fogleman's campaign to win total control of the Predator for the Air Force succeeded later in 1997, when Congress directed in the Fiscal 1998 Defense Authorization Act that Navy authority to manage the drone be transferred to the Air Force. Separately, House Intelligence Committee report language accompanying the Fiscal 1998 Intelligence Authorization Act directed the Air Force to designate the 645th Aeronautical Systems Group, an obscure rapid procurement unit known as "Big Safari," as the Predator's System Program Office. The report language, inserted by Representative Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), said the House committee "has been keenly interested in the rapid, flexible, and innovative acquisition approaches that hallmark Big Safari." On April 15, 1998, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, Jacques S. Gansler, officially directed the transfer of the Predator program from the Navy to Big Safari.


Document 6: Headquarters USAFE, Special Order GD-09, [Creating the 32nd Expeditionary Air Intelligence Squadron], January 16, 2001

Source: Public record obtained by Richard Whittle

In September 2000, an Air Force unit began flying an unarmed Predator over Afghanistan for the CIA in an attempt to locate Osama bin Laden, who had been in hiding since August 7, 1998, when Al Qaeda suicide bombers attacked the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The ad hoc Air Force unit — officially the 32nd Expeditionary Air Intelligence Squadron — controlled the Predator by satellite from a ground control station parked at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany, headquarters of United States Air Forces Europe (USAFE). Commanded by USAFE's intelligence director, Colonel Edward J. Boyle, and under the operational direction of Major Mark A. Cooter, the unit spotted and videotaped bin Laden at least twice. To preserve secrecy, the squadron was formed by verbal rather than written orders, which were issued retroactively.


Document 7: Headquarters Air Combat Command, Cable, "RQ-1, Predator, Program Direction," May 1, 2000

Source: Provided to Richard Whittle by Air Force Col. Sean Frisbee

Contrary to reports that the CIA armed the Predator and the Air Force followed, the decision to put Hellfire missiles on the drone was made by Air Force General John P. Jumper, commander of Air Combat Command. Jumper announced his decision to arm the Predator on May 1, 2000, nearly two months before CIA Director George Tenet agreed to a plan to fly an unarmed Predator over Afghanistan in search of Osama bin Laden. Initially, Jumper's plan to arm the Predator had nothing to do with the CIA or the U.S. shadow war with Al Qaeda that was going on at the time. Frustrated by difficulties Allied pilots had in finding and hitting mobile targets during the 1999 NATO air war in Kosovo, Jumper simply wanted to provide a weapon to attack "fleeting targets." The Predator had been used to find targets in Kosovo; Jumper said arming the drone was simply "the next logical step."


Special operations helicopter pilot and lifelong computer geek Captain Scott Swanson became Big Safari's first Predator pilot. Swanson was at the drone's controls when the Predator's cameras spotted Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in September 2000. (Photo courtesy of Scott Swanson)

Document 8: Department of the Air Force, E-mails, "Predator Weaponization and INF Treaty," September 2000

Source: Released to Richard Whittle by Headquarters Air Force Public Affairs

Jumper's project to arm the Predator with Hellfire missiles ran into two early roadblocks. The first, obtaining congressional approval for a "new start" program not previously approved in defense appropriations, was easily overcome. The second, a State Department general counsel's opinion that an armed Predator would constitute a ground-launched cruise missile banned by the U.S.-Soviet Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987, generated alarm within the Air Force. On Sept. 8, 2000, Col. James G. "Snake" Clark, whose 1997 report (Document 3) on Predator operations had helped the Air Force win total control of the program, forwarded to Lt. Gen. William Begert, assistant vice chief of staff, an e-mail from another officer warning that, if allowed to prevail, the State Department ruling would be a "serious setback" for the future of the Predator and Air Force plans to develop a UCAV, or unmanned combat aerial vehicle. "Sir we need help!" Clark told Begert, advising that the secretary of the Air Force and the chief of staff would have to get involved to reverse the State Department's treaty concern. These documents, redacted by Air Force Public Affairs to withhold the name of the lower-ranking officer who sent the initial message, is an e-mail chain Clark forwarded to his deputy, Lt. Col. Kenneth Johns.


Document 9: Department of the Air Force, E-mails, "Predator Weaponization," September 21-26, 2000

Source: Released to Richard Whittle by Headquarters Air Force Public Affairs

An email chain that begins Sept. 21, 2000, includes a message from General Jumper to the Air Force chief of staff, General Mike Ryan, arguing that the State Department opinion that arming the Predator would violate the INF Treaty should not be allowed "to stand or to ripen." Ryan agrees and thanks Jumper for volunteering to be "Your Junk Yard Dog" on the issue.


Document 10: Office of the Under Secretary of Defense, Memorandum from Jacques S. Gansler, "Compliance Certification of Predator Tests and the DARPA/USAF X-45A," December 21, 2000

Source: Released to Richard Whittle by Headquarters Air Force Public Affairs

On December 21, 2000, Undersecretary of Defense Jacques Gansler notified the secretary of the Air Force and the director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) that both the Air Force project to arm the Predator and a joint Air Force-DARPA project to demonstrate the technologies needed to develop an armed unmanned combat aerial vehicle, the X-45A, had been deemed permissible under the INF Treaty and other arms limitations pacts. Written justifications for the decisions remain classified. Whittle reports in Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution, that the decision was reached after Richard Clarke of the National Security Council staff intervened. Clarke, who had been deputy assistant secretary of state for intelligence when the INF treaty was negotiated and served as assistant secretary of state for politico-military affairs before going to the NSC, pointed out that, by definition, a cruise missile had a warhead and the Predator didn't. The Predator was merely a platform, an unmanned aerial vehicle that had landing gear and was designed to return to base after a mission. The X-45A, the first U.S. drone designed from its beginnings to be armed, flew in tests as a technology demonstrator between 2002-2005 and was then retired.


Predator 3034 was initially painted white and bore the marking "WA" — the two-letter base code for Nellis Air Force Base, where the first Hellfire tests were conducted. When 3034 launched the first-ever lethal drone strike, in Afghanistan, the aircraft was painted air superiority grey and bore no markings at all. (Air Force photo)

Document 11: Department of the Air Force, Letters Updating Congress on Predator Weaponization, July 11, 2000

Source: Released to Richard Whittle by Headquarters Air Force Public Affairs

On July 11, 2001, Deputy National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley sent a memo, cited in the 9/11 Commission Report, telling CIA Deputy Director John E. McLaughlin, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Air Force General Richard Myers, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the White House wanted to deploy Predators "capable of being armed" to Afghanistan by September 1. That same day, the Air Force legislative liaison office sent ten key members of Congress letters reporting that $2.275 million was being transferred from other programs in order "to complete the Hellfire demonstration." The money would be used, the letters said, "to modify two more Predator aircraft to develop useable tactics, techniques and procedures for weapons delivery from UAVs." The real purpose of the reprogramming was to provide armed Predators for a potential mission to kill Osama bin Laden.


Document 12: Department of the Air Force, Memorandum from Lt. Gen. Stephen B. Plummer, "Request for HELLFIRE II Missiles and Launders ...," July 12, 2001

Source: Released to Richard Whittle by Headquarters Air Force Public Affairs

On July 12, 2001, Lt. Gen. Stephen Plummer, principal assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, sent a memo to the Army asking for ten Hellfire II missiles and three M299 launchers "to support the expansion of the Predator/HELLFIRE weaponization quick reaction project." Plummer's memo added that the missiles and launchers were needed a mere eight days later — a reflection of how urgently Big Safari was trying to finish testing the newly armed Predator for possible use against bin Laden.


Document 13: Headquarters Air Combat Command, Special Orders GB-52 and GB-73, September 18, 2001 and May 29, 2002

Source: Public records obtained by Richard Whittle

As Al Qaeda terrorists launched their attacks on New York and Washington the morning of September 11, 2001, an Air Force team whose core cadre and leadership were the same as the unit that had found Osama bin Laden using an unarmed Predator the year before was reassembling at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. Official orders forming Detachment 1, Air Combat Command, Pentagon, were issued on September 18, 2001, with no explanation of the unit's mission. Also known as the Air Combat Command Expeditionary Air Intelligence Squadron, the unit was based in a double wide mobile home hidden by trees on the CIA campus and flew armed Predators over Afghanistan and elsewhere from first one and later two ground control stations parked next to the trailer. As the second document here shows, Detachment 1, Air Combat Command, Pentagon, was officially inactivated on May 29, 2002, and replaced by Detachment 1, 17 th Reconnaissance Squadron, a Predator unit headquartered at Indian Springs Air Force Auxiliary Field, Nevada. In 2005, Indian Springs was renamed Creech Air Force Base.


CIA Director George Tenet, with the NSC’s Richard Clarke sitting behind him, watched President Bush address the nation on the evening of September 11, 2001, from the White House bunker. Before that day, Tenet and Clarke were at odds about whether to use the armed Predator to try to kill Osama bin Laden. Afterward, Tenet became a Predator disciple. (Official White House photo)

Document 14: Department of the Air Force, Appointment Order, October 19, 2001, and Meritorious Service Medal Citation for Col. Edward J. Boyle, September 18, 2006

Source: Provided to Richard Whittle by Col. (ret.) Edward J. Boyle, USAF

Colonel Edward J. Boyle commanded both the 32nd Expeditionary Air Intelligence Squadron, whose unarmed Predator found Osama bin Laden in September 2000, and Detachment 1, Air Combat Command, Pentagon, the unit that flew armed Predators for CIA from September 2001 through May 2002. Following his retirement in October 2002, Boyle received a Meritorious Service Medal (Third Oak Leaf Cluster) for the latter command. Documents at this link include the order naming Boyle commander of the armed Predator unit and his award citation, which calls the unit the "Expeditionary Air Intelligence Squadron, Air Combat Command at a classified location" and in broad strokes describes how the Air Force team conducted "a revolution in warfare."


Document 15: Director of Central Intelligence, Meritorious Unit Citation to Expeditionary Air Intelligence Squadron, December 12, 2002

Source: Provided to Richard Whittle by Col. (ret) Mark A. Cooter, USAF

On December 12, 2002, CIA Director George Tenet awarded the first Air Force Predator unit that flew missions for his agency a National Intelligence Meritorious Unit Citation.


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