Skip to main content

Jane Mayer: The Risks Of A Remote-Controlled War

A staff writer for The New Yorker, Jane Mayer joins Fresh Air host Terry Gross to talk about what she discovered while researching her upcoming article "The Predator War." The story explores the ethics and controversies surrounding the CIA's covert drone program, in which remote-controlled airplanes target and kill terror suspects within Pakistan — a country that's a U.S. ally, not an adversary.


Other segments from the episode on October 21, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 21, 2009: Interview with Jane Mayer; Interview with P.W. Singer; Review of Nellie McKay’s new album “Normal as Blueberry Pie.”


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Jane Mayer: The Risks Of A Remote-Controlled War


This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. The CIA is running a covert program using
Predator drones - unmanned, remotely-controlled planes - to kill terrorist
suspects in Pakistan. This program has expanded under the Obama administration,
but it was created by the Bush administration after 9/11, when legal changes
were made to say that these targeted killings were not assassinations, they
were an extension of combat in a global war on terror.

My guest, Jane Mayer, writes about the secret program in the current edition of
the New Yorker. She covers politics and national security for the magazine. She
says there’s good news and bad news about the Predator drones. The CIA says
they’ve killed more than half of the 20-most-wanted al-Qaida terrorist
suspects. But the secret drone program raises a lot of ethical and practical
questions about how we are fighting terror suspects in Pakistan. Mayer’s
article is about those questions.

Jane Mayer, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Your article is framed by a very
perplexing question. I’m going to ask you to set up the question you’ve asked
in your article.

Ms. JANE MAYER (The New Yorker): Well, I was intrigued this past summer when
there was so much upset over revelations that the CIA had considered a
targeted-killing program during the Bush years, where they were going to have
hit squads roaming the world, killing terrorists. And that program didn’t
actually go into existence, but just the idea of it created a firestorm when at
exactly the precise – the same time the CIA actually has in existence a
targeted-killing program, but it’s one that uses unmanned, aerial drones to
kill terrorists around the world, and nobody seems to mind. So my question was:
Why are we so upset if people do it and not upset when unmanned drones do it?

GROSS: Now, the CIA secret program that got people so upset over the summer,
when it was revealed, one of the problems with that was that there was no
oversight. It was kept secret from Congress. What about oversight in the
unmanned drone program?

Ms. MAYER: Well, I think there is congressional buy-in to this program. I
talked to a number of people on the Senate and House intelligence committees
who certainly know about this program, and they support it. So in that sense,
there’s more oversight, but one of the things that really interested me was
that the program - it’s very unusual that the CIA is killing people at all
because usually, it’s the military that kills people. And because the program
is covert, it’s invisible to the United States.

The government won’t talk about it. They won’t say who’s in charge of it. They
won’t say who pulls the trigger. They won’t say who’s on the target list. They
won’t say how you get on the target list. They won’t say where the battlefield
is, where it’s okay to kill people, and they don’t reveal the names or numbers
of the people that they’ve killed and wounded. So it’s in many ways a secret

GROSS: And you say this push-button war represents a radically new and
geographically unbounded use of state-sanctioned legal force. What do you mean

Ms. MAYER: Well, what’s interesting to me is just that before September 11th,
2001, the United States was on the record as opposing targeted killing, by
Israel at that point, as something that is assassination. And assassination is,
under our laws, illegal. But after September 11th, we just changed our mood
about this and actually set up our own targeted-killing program. And what I
mean about geographically unbounded is that under the – it seems that under the
CIA’s rules, they can target a terror suspect virtually anywhere in the world,
if they wanted to, and they say they can do it legally.

So you could kill a terrorist in Mexico City, or you could kill somebody on the
streets of London, and you could do it with an aerial drone legally, according
to their interpretation of the law. So the world is the battlefield, and
combatants are on a list that we can’t really see, but they have to be people
who we consider threatening America’s defense.

GROSS: So there’s two separate drone programs, two separate programs that run
these unmanned planes that shoot missiles. One’s run by the military. The
other’s run by the CIA. What’s the difference between these two drone programs?

Ms. MAYER: Well, you’re right. There are two different programs, and the
military one is pretty much an extension of conventional warfare. It’s a
program run by the military. It’s out in the open. Reporters who have been
invited to see how the drone operators actually, you know, man the planes from
– and they do so from military bases in Nevada, among other places, and those
missiles are shot at enemies in places where U.S. troops are in combat. So it’s
really part of the combat zone. It’s just like another kind of fighter jet,

What I’m writing about here is the program that is different, that people
really don’t focus on very much, which is a secret program that the CIA runs.
They have their own drones. They operate them out of northern Virginia, where
the CIA’s headquarters is, and the places where these drones are not in combat
zones like Iraq and Afghanistan necessarily, though they do some of that there,
too. But they can shoot them in places where the United States is not at war.
Specifically where they’ve been shooting most of them recently has been in
Pakistan, where of course Pakistan’s an allied country, and we’re not at war
with Pakistan.

GROSS: Let’s look at some of the people the CIA drone program has successfully
targeted. The top person is probably Baitullah Mehsud, who was the head of the
Pakistani Taliban. And the Pakistani government held him responsible for 80
percent of recent terrorist attacks inside Pakistan, including the
assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. So would you describe
what you know of this hit and how it was done?

Ms. MAYER: Yeah, sure. Mehsud was killed on August 5th this past summer, and it
really was a kind of a marvel because there was a drone hovering over his house
in the tribal area of Pakistan – Waziristan - just in a completely impenetrable
part of the world to U.S. troops and law enforcement, reporters. But this drone
could just creep up and, unseen, hover over this house that was in Waziristan
and send back live footage of Mehsud up on the roof of this house - it was
actually his father-in-law’s house – and Mehsud was kind of lounging around,
catching the summer breeze on a hot night, and he was being tended to by a
physician who was giving him some kind of medical drip because Mehsud, the
terrorist, suffered from some ailments that required attention.

And so at the CIA, they could watch this, and they could see that he was spread
out prone, which gave them even a better sort of target area. And once he was
there, and they knew exactly who he was, and they were sure of it, they let a
couple Hellfire missiles rip, and they tore into the rooftop. And by the time
the hit was done, all that was left of Mehsud was his torso, and 11 people were
killed along with him. And I think it’s probably safe to say there weren’t too
many people in the West or at least in the Pakistani government who were
lamenting this.

GROSS: And the other 11 people were his wife, his uncle, his mother- and
father-in-law, a Taliban lieutenant and seven bodyguards.

Ms. MAYER: You know, it’s actually – I think it’s unclear whether the uncle was
killed, but yes, the rest of them were.

GROSS: One thing just technically that confuses me, if the drone is hovering
above Mehsud’s house, how come Mehsud doesn’t hear it?

Ms. MAYER: Well, it makes a buzzing sound, but not a very loud one. And if it’s
two miles up, that’s pretty far away.

GROSS: Oh, I see.

Ms. MAYER: I mean, it truly is a technical marvel that it can also, because it
has infrared cameras, it can hone in at night and see pretty clearly, so – and
it can’t be seen in the night sky. And if the cloud cover is right, and the
weather condition’s right, you really don’t hear much of it, either.

GROSS: So where are the people who are actually deciding okay, drop the

Ms. MAYER: They are probably in America. They’re probably in the suburbs of
northern Virginia, actually, which is – and they can actually fly the drone
from northern Virginia using remote controls that are kind of like the kinds of
joysticks they use on computer games.

GROSS: So getting back to this hit on Baitullah Mehsud, who was the head of the
Pakistani Taliban, there were not only 11 other people killed by this hit, but
you write it took 16 separate missile strikes during the course of 14 months
before actually getting Mehsud. So were a lot of people killed in the process
of those other 16 missile strikes?

Ms. MAYER: Hundreds, hundreds of them, yeah, several hundred of them most
likely, and we don’t really not who they all were. And I’m sure many of them
were also militants of various sorts and enemies of the Pakistani government
and possibly, you know, harmful to U.S. troops that were stationed across the
border in Afghanistan, as well.

But the question is: Is the United States now beginning to use this Predator
program, this tremendous technological marvel, to start killing less and less
important people just because we can? And it appears that what’s going on is
that we’ve made some kind of agreement with Pakistan in order to get them to
buy into this program, where Pakistan actually nominates a number of the people
who we are killing. They are people who Pakistan wants dead, and it’s less
certain that they are legitimate targets for the United States. But the target
list seems to keep growing.

GROSS: So one of the questions you’re raising is: Are the people who we’re
targeting legitimate targets? Are they worthy of, you know, a drone missile
attack? Do you have any idea how the criteria is being created, like, who’s
creating the criteria for who makes a worthy drone missile attack?

Ms. MAYER: Well, I mean, one of the things that troubles critics of this
program is that it’s a secret program, the CIA’s version of it is. And so we
don’t know really how you get onto their target list necessarily. We don’t know
if there’s a way you can get yourself off that target list if there is a target
on your back. So this all happens behind a black curtain, basically, and…

GROSS: Which on some level is no surprise. I mean, what are they going to do,
like, broadcast who they’re trying to attack before they attack them? I mean,
you can’t…

Ms. MAYER: Well, I mean, in many ways we do, though. Generally – I mean, what –
I interviewed the political philosopher Michael Walzer, who is an expert in
warfare and the ethics of warfare. He’s written a very famous book, “Just and
Unjust Wars,” and he is arguing strongly that basically when the government
goes out and kills people, it needs to make clear who it’s trying to kill, why
it’s trying to kill them and who it has killed. I mean, this is really –
traditionally, there has to be transparency there so that you can hold the
government accountable and make sure that it’s not abusing power. And it’s an
important kind of check on something as terrifying as using lethal force.

So basically, if you look at the military’s version of this program, the
military actually has a list of 367 people who are its target list, and it can
describe who these people are. And if you look at, say, the FBI, it has a most-
wanted list of criminal suspects, and they’ll put out the name of them, and we
even talk about how we’ll pay huge bounties for some people. But in the CIA’s
version, the list seems to be growing, but none of us outside of the sort of
the inner circle of people who have high clearances can know who’s on the list.

GROSS: Now, another question you raise is about the role of private contractors
in the process of using these drones, these unmanned planes that shoot
missiles. What is the role of private contractors?

Ms. MAYER: Well, they actually – the CIA uses a lot of private firms now to do
various jobs that, for either budgetary reasons or expertise reasons, they
can’t do. So they actually – some of the pilots of these drones are private
contractors, as are the people who load the bombs onto the drones over in
Afghanistan and Pakistan. Those people actually work for a fairly controversial
company, what used to be called Blackwater and is now called Z. And again,
what’s worrisome about this is just that private, for-profit companies are
outside of the ordinary chain of command, for instance, that the military has.
They’re not legally liable the same way that people who work for the military
are, and it’s a little bit less clear who’s responsible when something goes

GROSS: You write that even though these drones are remote control that the
pilots have a high rate of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Ms. MAYER: Yeah, isn’t that interesting? You would think that the job is so
kind of divorced from the impact of these missile strikes that it might not
affect the pilots because the pilots are, after all, working from America.
They’re often on military bases out in the desert or the control room over at
the CIA. And it – even so, apparently, I interviewed someone named Peter
Singer, who’s written a book about sort of robotic warfare, and he said that
they suffer a lot of combat stress.

I mean, you push a button, you look at a screen, and it’s really quite
incredible. You see this cloud go up and a tiny little figure just sort of
wiped off the face of the earth. And you don’t feel it, you don’t really hear
it, but the person is dead. And I guess it still in many ways gets under the
skin of the people who are the warriors in this kind of cubicle warfare.

GROSS: My guest is Jane Mayer. She writes about the CIA’s secret Predator drone
program in the current edition of The New Yorker. She covers politics and
national security for the magazine. We’ll talk more after a break. This is
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
The Ethical, Psychological Effects Of Robotic Warfare


Before we continue our discussion about Jane Mayer’s New Yorker article on the
CIA’s secret drone program, we’re going to hear from someone she quotes, P.W.
Singer. He directs the Brookings Institution’s 21st-Century Defense Initiative
and is the author of the book “Wired for War.” It’s about how robotic weapons
are changing warfare and what it means to be a soldier. Part of the book is
about the U.S. military’s use of drones in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is an
excerpt of the interview we recorded when the book was published in January.

One of the really important questions that your book raises about robotics
technology has to do with how it’s changing the nature of war, to have people
who are controlling drones, for example, from computer screens within the
United States. So they're halfway around the world from where the planes are
actually flying and from where the damage is being done.

You write that drones flying over Iraq and Afghanistan are flown by pilots
sitting in Nevada and that it's like a video game, and this is bringing new
psychological twists to war.

Mr. P.W. SINGER (Brookings Institution): What we found is that there's actually
a whole lot of human psychology to the impact of robots on war. And one, for
example, is the experience of the soldiers who are truly at war but not
physically at war. That is, when we say, go to war, we've got a new twist on
that meaning. I term it cubicle warriors, that is, these are folks who are
working in office cubicles or something like that, but they're juggling the
psychological consequences of being at war but at home at the same time.

There's a great quote from a Predator pilot who I interviewed, and he said it
this way: You're going to war for 12 hours, shooting weapons at targets,
directing kills on enemy combatants. And then you get in the car, and you drive
home, and within 20 minutes, you’re sitting at the dinner table talking to your
kids about their homework.

And that's one of the things that’s coming out of this is that we're actually
finding that the drone pilots, because of this tough psychological juggling
they're having to do, the drone pilots actually have higher levels of PTSD –
post-traumatic stress disorder - than those who are actually physically serving
in the combat zone.

And other examples of the ripple effects is what does this do when you can
watch it play out? And one of the things we’re finding is the rise of - I call
it YouTube War. That is, the Iraq War, because of all these systems, is the
first one where you can watch, but you don't have to be there. And these
machines see all. And we're taking these clips and watching from afar, but
we're also emailing them around.

We found over 7,000 different clips of combat footage in Iraq, and the soldiers
actually call them war porn. And the worry of it is that it connects people to
war, they get to see what's happening, but it actually widens the gaps, that
is, it creates a further distance. They watch more, but they experience less.

GROSS: Many people have made the observation that with more robotics, war
becomes like a video game. But you report about how some of the robotics are
intentionally designed like video games to take advantage of skills that young
soldiers have as a result of having played a lot of video games. Would you
describe how some war robotics are designed intentionally like video games?

MR. SINGER: Well, it's interesting. The military quickly figured out that there
were two advantages of doing this. For example, the hand-held controllers that
most of the ground robotics systems use, they're modeled after the Xbox or the
PlayStation. And the reason was two-fold. One, they figured out, okay, these
game companies have spent millions of dollars designing systems that are, you
know, perfectly suited, where your finger should go and the like, and if they
did all the research, why don't we piggyback on that? The second is they
figured out, hold it, the video game companies have actually trained up our
forces for us already. That is, you know, we're getting kids coming in who've
spend the last several years working with these little video game controllers.
So why not free-ride off of that as well?

And the result of it is, because of these systems and because they’re trained
up that way, it's another kind of ripple effect we’re seeing, the demographics
of war even being reshaped. That is, one of the people that we interviewed was
a 19-year-old high school dropout. He's an Army specialist. He's actually, by
some consideration, the best drone pilot in the entire force, and it's in part
because of video games. And it's an interesting story because he originally
wanted to join the Army to be a helicopter mechanic, but because he had failed
his English class, he wasn't qualified for that, and instead they said, hey, do
you want to be a drone pilot? And he's turned out to be spectacular at it. They
sent him off to Iraq, and then he was so good that they brought him back to be
an instructor in the training academy. And again, this is someone who's not
even an officer yet, and he's in the Army.

Now, take this ripple effect further. This is not a story that people in the
Air Force like to hear, and it's spooking out a lot of people, for example, you
know, F15 pilots, who spent years and years training, go to college, they're
officers, and when they hear, hold it, this 19-year-old video gamer is not just
better at these systems than me but actually is out there doing more fighting
than me, what's going on here?

GROSS: P.W. Singer is the author of the book “Wired for War” and directs the
Brookings Institution’s 21-Century Defense Initiative. We’ll talk more with
Jane Mayer about the CIA’s secret drone program in the second half of the show.
I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Jane Mayer: The Risks Of A Remote-Controlled War (cont’d)


This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross.

Let's get back to our interview with Jane Mayer, who writes about the CIA's
secret drone program in the current edition of The New Yorker. She covers
politics and national security for the magazine.

The drones are unmanned, remotely controlled planes that are being used to
target and kill terrorist suspects in Pakistan. The CIA says it has killed more
than half of the top 20 al-Qaida suspects and many experts make the case that
drones are a good alternative to troops on the ground.

But the program raises a lot of questions, including - who is doing the
targeting and with what criteria? What about the innocent people who are being
killed? And are these targeted killings assassinations?

Now, you write, and you mentioned earlier, that before 9/11 the U.S. denounced
Israel's use of targeted killing against Palestinian terrorists. And you say
the U.S. ambassador in Israel at the time, Martin Indyk, said the U.S.
government is very clearly on the record as against targeted assassinations,
they're extrajudicial killings, and we don’t support that. But that changed
after 9/11.

Did something happen legally to open the door to that kind of change to allow
the targeted assassinations?

Ms. MAYER: Well, there certainly were legal changes that made it possible to
say that this kind of killing is not assassination, it’s just an extension of
combat. And the legal change was we said terrorists are no longer criminals.
They are combatants in a worldwide war and so killing them is part of warfare.
And where's the battlefield? The battlefield is the globe. So we did change
sort of the legal rationale. But basically what it did was it said something
that we prohibited before was now okay.

GROSS: Now, what do you think the increasing use of drones says about how our
military strategy is changing in Afghanistan and Pakistan?

Ms. MAYER: Well, I mean I think it, you know, the problem is it’s a really
difficult situation, obviously, in Afghanistan, Pakistan right now. It's hard
for this government and it was hard for the Bush administration to know what to
do about terrorists who are hiding out in the inaccessible parts of Pakistan
and attacking over in Afghanistan as well. So the drone program kind of
represents what looks like a great alternative to putting troops on the ground
where American boys are going to - and girls are going to get killed.

It looks like maybe there's some kind of remote control way you could do this
that wouldn’t be so costly to us as a nation in terms of blood and treasure.
And so it seemed - it exists as sort of this ideal alternative, you would
think. But what I was trying to do in this piece was take a look at it and see,
you know, is it really so ideal? And when you get up close and you take at
what's going on in this program, there are a lot of aspects to it that are kind
of scary.

GROSS: What scares you?

Ms. MAYER: Well, I think it’s - my personal sense is you can't really go around
the globe killing people as the United States government without igniting some
kind of retaliation. I think you - once you start killing people on the other
side of the world, you are going to, first of all, kill some of the wrong
people, which this program has done.

They’ve killed a number of innocent people, and you know, women and children,
and you then get members of their family wanting to avenge them, and you just
basically also become morally insulated to a kind of a horrific thing that's
going on, and eventually I think it’s going to cause blowback, that basically
that's been the experience historically.

GROSS: Now, some people are saying that if you rely on unmanned drones and you
don’t have troops, you don’t get intelligence on the ground and it makes
combating the war more difficult. Have you...

Ms. MAYER: Well, it’s certainly true that you - in order for the drone program
to be effective you need to have intelligence on the ground telling you who to
target and whether they're, you know, for instance present at the time that
you’re trying to get them. So the whole - the program requires good on-the-
ground intelligence. And so without that you, you know, the risk goes up that
you will hit the wrong people.

GROSS: Now, I think it's fair to say that part of the reason why we're relying
on drones in Pakistan is because a lot of the people who we're targeting -
members of al-Qaida and the Taliban - are located in this no-man's-land in the
tribal areas of Pakistan. We - it’s just impossible to get there kind of, and
you know, you’re - probably your best hope of targeting them is through the air
and through something like a drone. So how do you think the remote nature of
where the targeted people are hiding is affecting what are strategy is there?

Ms. MAYER: Well, I think you’re absolutely right. I mean and there's not the -
the better option many of the experts I talk to generally is to try to capture
terror suspects so that you can then interrogate them and learn about what
they're trying to do and unravel any kind of plots before they're carried out.

And I tell the story about Saad bin Laden, who's the son of Osama, who there
was a chance that they could've interrogated him early on, but instead they
didn’t take that chance back in the early days of the Bush administration and
he wound up - according to NPR - being killed in a drone attack.

So you lose all the intelligence that he might've been able to give us. But in
that area, the remote area of Pakistan that we're talking about, Waziristan,
it’s very hard for Pakistani troops, law enforcement, anybody else, to get in
there and grab these people, so the drone is kind of a weapon of last resort in
some ways.

GROSS: So you quote Leon Panetta, the head of the CIA, who you recently
profiled in The New Yorker, you quote him as saying the Predator program is the
only game in town. What does he mean?

Ms. MAYER: That's what - exactly. What's he's saying is we can't get these
people any other way. It’s the only game in town, and in fact the CIA is - I
mean to give them their due, they have had a tremendous run of killing
important al-Qaida figures. They say that more than half of the top 20 people
that they’ve wanted to get a hold of they have now killed through using this
program, mostly in the last year, really. So they’ve been knocking them off one
by one and they feel pretty good about it for, you know, good reasons.

But at the same time, I think what is worth thinking about here is there's a
tendency with a success like that to say, wow, if you can get, you know, more
than half of the top 20 al-Qaida leaders, why don’t we expand this and go for
some other bad guys? And that's what we're seeing now.

GROSS: And how are you seeing that, like…

Ms. MAYER: Well, you’re seeing it because the military has now added 50 Afghan
drug lords to the list of people who they can target, so they're not
necessarily just al-Qaida anymore. And in Pakistan the Pakistani government has
nominated a number of extra targets who are people who are Pakistani enemies,
and they're member of the Taliban, they're members of other various militant
groups. The U.S. also wants to get other militants who are not necessarily al-

So what began as a kind of a small exceptional program of using the most lethal
force against the worst enemies that the United States has - al-Qaida - has now
kind of dribbled out and it’s becoming a bigger, fuzzier group of people we can
get. And of course as that group grows larger, it raises more and more
questions about whether this is really necessary. Is this really proportional?

These are the kind - the issues that are asked in international law about
warfare are: Did we have to kill this person? Was there no chance you could
capture them? Is the use of force proportional to the danger that that person
caused the United States? How about - is the use of force justified in killing
the other people around that person? There's almost always so-called collateral
damage in these strikes.

If it's a low-level militant, are we justified in killing a number of
bystanders that are killed with that person? These are very morally fraught
complicated questions. And again, the process of who's making those decisions
and how is hidden, as far as the CIA goes.

GROSS: And into that mix, I'd like to throw the question - are these unmanned
attacks preventing a wider war which would cause more casualties, Americans and
Afghanis and Pakistanis?

Ms. MAYER: Well, that's what certainly we would hope. I mean that by killing a
few - yeah, they call it decapitating the leadership - maybe we can save
American lives and Afghan and Pakistani lives - and avoid a larger war. But
it’s really unclear whether that's the effect of this program.

There's been an escalation of attacks in Pakistan by militant groups who didn’t
use to work together, who seemed to be kind of coalescing now against the
Zardari government there, partly in anger at these drone attacks. So that the
fear is that it may ignite some kind of backlash that will create worse
problems. It remains to be seen, really. But it’s an unsettling, disturbing
form of warfare. It looks good on the surface. It doesn’t look quite as good
when you look closely.

GROSS: Well, along those lines, you raise the question, what is it like for
people who know that there might be unmanned missile-loaded planes flying kind
of invisibly overhead and spying on them?

Ms. MAYER: Well, I mean it’s obviously disturbing for the people on the ground.
But if they are our enemies, this is the kind of disturbing we want to do. I
mean what's - one of the great ripple effects of the drone program is that it's
so unnerves the terrorists that they basically stay in their houses all day.
They only come out at night. They communicate with each other very - with great
worry. They don’t want to use cell phones for fear that the National Security
Administration will pick them up.

It makes them turn on each other because they keep thinking that there are
spies in their midst who are basically informing on them and that's how the
drones figure out who to target. So all of that is if you want to try to
disrupt terrorists in their nests, these are all great effects of the drone

But the problem is, of course, that the drones take out a number of innocent
people or just make mistakes sometimes and you wind up killing, you know, the
wrong people. And that actually happened even on Obama's first missile strike,
which was during his third day in office.

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Jane Mayer and she covers
politics and national security for The New Yorker. Her article on the current
edition is about the risks of the CIA's covert drone program.

Let's take a short break here and then we’ll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Jane Mayer. She writes about
politics and national security for The New Yorker and we're talking about her
article in the current edition, which is about the risks of the CIA's covert
drone program, and the drones are those unmanned planes that can shoot missiles
at their targets.

Now, President Obama is trying to figure out what direction he wants to head in
in terms of strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. How does the drone program,
which you’ve just written about for The New Yorker, figure into the decisions
he has to make?

Ms. MAYER: Well, it seems to offer an alternative in the view of some people.
George Will, for instance, the conservative pundit, wrote a piece in the
Washington Post suggesting that we should pull our troops out of Afghanistan
and just fight the war against al-Qaida from remote control - from afar, off
shores using things like - technology like drones and maybe some special forces
to occasionally do an operation on the land.

But it seems that it might be kind of an appealing clean alternative to having
our, you know, troops on the ground. So it’s something that the Obama
administration is thinking and apparently the vice president, Joe Biden, is
seriously considering this as an alternative and favoring it.

GROSS: What questions do you hope President Obama is asking himself about the

Ms. MAYER: I hope he's really thinking about whether or not they are doing more
harm than good, because you could both decapitate al-Qaida where it’s hiding
out in Pakistan but weaken the Pakistani government by doing it. These drones
are very unpopular in Pakistan and they seem to be turning the Pakistani
population against the government there, which is no help to the United States.
If anything we need to really try to stabilize Pakistan, and so you have to ask
that question. I think you have to ask the question about whether or not these
hit squads are transparent enough.

I mean, shouldn’t the United States put out some information when it kills
people? Shouldn’t it say, well, we got so-and-so and this was a triumph, but
we’re really sorry we killed the following eight other people and we are going
to be paying reparations to their families? I think it would seem, you know, I
hope he’s thinking about that kind of moral equation because this is projecting
to the world a use of power that is really unusual for the United States.

GROSS: Now, you say that the Pakistani government is now putting some people on
the list for targeted killing that the Pakistani government wants to see on the
list, and that the United States is accepting some of those nominees, so to
speak, in return for cooperation from the Pakistani government for the drone
program. What are some of your concerns about Pakistani suggestions for
targeted killing?

Ms. MAYER: I think the question is, are these our enemies or are these just
Pakistan’s enemies? Congress has passed the law saying we can use lethal force
in this country to kill people who are part of al-Qaida or and had played a
role in those 9/11 attacks, but the United States government is not authorized
to start killing just people who Pakistan doesn’t like. It’s – or any other
country doesn’t like. It really – they’re using our technology and our
personnel to kill people who may just be political enemies of the Pakistani
government, that’s where it gets troubling.

GROSS: The technology in these remote controlled unmanned planes is becoming
more and more incredible. In your research on the drone program, what surprised
you most about our technological capabilities and what that might mean for the
future of war?

Ms. MAYER: Well, I think one of the weirdest things - that’s actually being
developed right now is something called Nano-drones which are - they’re
basically like little killer bees that can follow their prey, even going in
through an open window. And they are about two and half inches long and they
are being developed. And there are actually also drones that they’re developing
that are kind of aerial tankers that are going to allow these drones to refuel
without ever landing. So, there’s going to be sort of perpetual drone
operations up in the air around the world.

My sense is that this kind of technology, there’s going to be no turning back.
We are really going to a whole new phase of warfare here. And I guess what I
wonder about is, you know, what are the rules for the road for this kind of
thing? Because it really is a new frontier.

GROSS: Is there anybody that you’re aware of in Congress or in the Obama
administration who is challenging the way we are currently using drones?

Ms. MAYER: You know, right now, I think Congress is really infatuated with this
technology. And you can see why, I mean it is a marvel. But the place where
people are asking questions are in the human rights community, the
international lawyers, the U.N.,. There are a number of sort of political
philosophers asking questions, such as, you know, if there’s no - if we can’t
feel the impact of the people that we’re killing and we can’t see them, and
none of our own people at risk, does this somehow make it easier to just be in
a perpetual state of war because there’s no seeming cost to us? These are the
kinds of questions that people are asking.

GROSS: So, when you look at the choices facing President Obama now, what are
some of your thoughts?

Ms. MAYER: You know, my worry is - and I have great sympathy for them in many
ways, that they just don’t have good choices right now. And I interviewed Bruce
Riedel, who is a former CIA officer who has been advising the Obama
administration from the outside on Afghanistan and Pakistan. And he basically
says, you know, it’s a good question: Are these drones helping or hurting? They
seem to be doing both at the same time. But the reason that the government’s
using them is obvious, he says, they don’t have any other choices.

GROSS: Jane Mayer, thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. MAYER: Terry, it’s always great to be with you, thanks for having me.

GROSS: Jane Mayer writes about the CIA’s secret Predator drone program in the
current edition of the New Yorker. She covers politics and national security
for the magazine. This is FRESH AIR.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Nellie McKay’s ‘Blueberry Pie,’ A Tribute to Doris Day


Nellie McKay is a prolific pop singer known for her independent streak. It’s
probably safe to say that even some of her fans may be startled by her new
album, a tribute to Doris Day called “Normal As Blueberry Pie,” featuring songs
they recorded along with one McKay original.

But one fan of McKay’s, rock critic Ken Tucker, is charmed and appreciative.

(Soundbite of the song, “The Very Thought Of You”)

Ms. NELLIE MCKAY (Singer): (Singing) The very thought of you and I forget to do
the little ordinary things everyone ought to do. I’m living in a kind of
daydream. I’m happy as a queen, and foolish though it may seem, to me that’s

KEN TUCKER: Every time Nellie McKay releases a new album, I think, this is
exactly the kind of music that, if it came from anyone else, I’d find arch,
fluffy, coy, and irritating. Yet, McKay is batting a thousand with me. Her
Doris Day tribute is eccentric yet utterly disarming, a solid chunk of work
lifted by lightness and delicacy. McKay’s phrasing is often airy but never
airheaded. She presents herself as a willful eccentric but the control she
maintains with her soaring high notes and conversational phrasing is the work
of a meticulous artist.

(Soundbite of song, “Crazy Rhythm”)

Ms. MCKAY (Singer): (Singing) Crazy rhythm, here’s the doorway, I’ll go my way,
you’ll go your way. Crazy rhythm, from now on, we’re through. Here is where we
have a showdown, I’m too high hat, you’re too low down. Crazy rhythm, here’s
goodbye to you. They say that when a highbrow meets a lowbrow, walking along
Broadway, soon the highbrow, he has no brow, ain’t it a shame and you’re to
blame. What’s the use of prohibition, you produce the same condition. Crazy
rhythm, I’ve gone crazy too. Now everything...

TUCKER: McKay’s admiration for Doris Day should not come as a surprise. Both
have presented public images that are cheerful and plucky. Neither are afraid
to smile and act happy-go-lucky when all around them, people are frowning and
worried. Both are underrated. Day’s novelty pop hits and her sillier romantic
comedies with Rock Hudson have, for many people, obscured her fine, dexterous
big-band vocalizing. For McKay, her simple lack of great commercial success,
along with her refusal to over-decorate her music with extravagant phrasing in
the “American Idol” manner, have kept her a cult artist. On this album, Day and
McKay are an unbeatable team, sisters in bright-eyed intelligence.

(Soundbite of song, “Sentimental Journey”)

Ms. MCKAY (Singer): (Singing) Gonna take a sentimental journey, gonna set my
heart at ease. Gonna make the sentimental journey to renew old memories. Got my
bags, got my reservations, spent each dime I could afford. Like a child in wild
anticipation, long to hear that all aboard. Seven, that’s the time we leave at
seven. I’ll be waiting up for heaven, counting every mile of railroad track
that takes me back.

TUCKER: That’s Nellie McKay performing one of Doris Day’s biggest hits. One of
the few truly melancholy songs on this collection is McKay’s version of "I
Remember You." Written for the 1942 movie “The Fleet’s In,” its Johnny Mercer
lyric is, on one level, a lovely hymn to death. The singer speaks of a time
angels ask her to recall the thrill of it all, and she turns her attention to
her lover, saying simply, I remember you. The way Nellie McKay sings it, you
can hear the undertow of dread and bliss beneath the beauty.

(Soundbite of song, “I Remember You”)

Ms. MCKAY (Singer): (Singing) I remember you, you’re the one who made my dreams
come true. A few kisses ago, I remember you. You’re the one who said I love
you, too. I do, didn’t you know? I remember, too.

TUCKER: Among pop artists aware of how covering pre-rock music is perceived by
a post-rock audience, McKay is like a young Bette Midler without the irony,
like a Tiny Tim without the camp, a Rufus Wainwright without the campy irony.
McKay can choose the George and Ira Gershwin song “Do Do Do” and you never have
to worry that she’s going to reduce the song’s playful triple-repetitions of
key words to mere novelty.

(Soundbite of song, “Do Do Do”)

Ms. MCKAY (Singer): (Singing) Oh, do, do, do what you’ve done, done, done
before, baby. Do, do, do what I do, do, do adore, baby. Let’s try again, sigh
again, fly again to heaven. Baby, see, it’s A, B, C, I love you and you love

TUCKER: The one song not associated with Doris Day here, “If I Ever Had a
Dream,” was written by McKay, and it emphasizes the success of this entire
enterprise. The last thing Nellie McKay is is normal as blueberry pie. But
listening to her, she lets you share a desire to be as normal as blueberry pie
yourself. It’s both impossible and wonderful to contemplate, a combination that
courses through every song on this album.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
“Normal as Blueberry Pie,” by Nellie McKay. You can download podcasts of our
show on our Web site

I’m Terry Gross.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


No More Mr. Nice Guy: Hugh Grant Embraces The 'Blessed Relief' Of Darker Roles

Grant started out in romantic comedies. Now he's up for an Emmy for his role as a narcissistic doctor accused of murder in the HBO series The Undoing. Originally broadcast Dec. 1, 2020.


Albums By The Murlocs And King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard Explore New Sounds

The Murlocs are a side project of sorts to King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, where Ambrose Kenny-Smith and guitarist Cook Craig join other musicians to amalgamate all different styles of pop.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.


Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue