December 10th, 2011
11:27 PM ET

Zakaria and Baer: Downed U.S. drone an intel catastrophe

Editor's Note: The following is an edited transcript of a discussion between Anderson Cooper, Robert Baer and Fareed Zakaria on the subject of a downed U.S. drone in Iran.

Anderson Cooper: We're tracking the evolving story of what became of an American drone called an RQ-170 Sentinel. It is also known as the Beast of Kandahar.

Reports are sent that it was orbiting over Osama bin Laden's compound gathering intelligence while the stealth technology made it invisible to Pakistani radar. Tonight though, that stealth technology may be in the hands Iran. Iran claims they tracked and RQ-170 last week as it flew across the Afghan border deep into Iran. Then they say they brought it down mostly in one piece as you see in the video above.

You can see it. It looks more like it landed than it actually crashed - it doesn't look like there's much damage.

Is it for real? Well, the experts differ. Was it spying on Iran, especially Iran's nuclear program? American officials are not saying. The story is evolving.

That's where we stand tonight. Some of America's most carefully guarded stealth technology is possibly now in the hands of an adversary. More than half a century ago, our then-adversary, the Soviet Union, put pieces of an American spy plane, the U-2 on display. It was state-of-the-art technology back then.  Unlike today, they also had a pilot, Francis Gary Powers. But also like today, the story of how he went down evolved and it took a while to learn the whole truth.

I talked about what the Iranians may have and what its mission might have been with former CIA officer and TIME.com intelligence columnist Robert Baer, co- author of The Company We Keep: A Husband and Wife, True-life Spy Story. Also, Fareed Zakaria, editor at large of TIME Magazine and host of CNN's Fareed Zakaria GPS.

Bob, do you think the drone shown on Iranian TV is the real thing?

Robert Baer: Oh, I think it absolutely is. I mean, it's not something that they could imitate and fake. I think what happened is it was either forced down by hacking or it in fact landed - these drones are programmable to land on flat ground. There is no evidence of damage though. That's my question.

Anderson Cooper: So you think the Iranians actually hacked into the system?

Robert Baer: There's a possibility they did. Washington has denied it so far. But they can hack into these things and order them to land. They can override American controls.

Anderson Cooper: It's interesting, Fareed. I mean, this is kind of a glimpse of if in fact this is a real drone and they did hack it or bring it down somehow. This is just a glimpse into what is basically a stealth war - a covert war between the U.S. and Iran, isn't it?

Fareed Zakaria: Absolutely. This is something we sometimes forget. The United States is very actively engaged in all sorts of operations against Iran. The drones are one part of it. They are also funding certain kinds of groups that operate on Iran's borders.

The other sense in which this is a glimpse of the future perhaps is Iran is using asymmetrical methods - asymmetrical warfare - to bring down America's advantages. They can't build a drone, but they figured out a way to hack into the system and bring down our drone.

I agree with Bob. It's unclear what's happened, but because there does not seem to be significant damage, there is at least a decent chance that what happened is that the Iranians figured out some way to do this. And that's a very interesting example of asymmetrical warfare. It's what the Chinese study when they look at how to do battle with us. It's what the Iranians are obviously studying.

Anderson Cooper: There has also, Bob, been hacking of - by some whether it's the U.S. or Israel or someone else - of Iranian nuclear facilities. And, in fact, Iranian nuclear scientists, some of them have been killed in the streets in Iran, haven't they?

Robert Baer: Yes, I think this undoubtedly the Israelis. The United States is not waging a lethal war against Iran right now. There's no authority for it. If there were, we would have seen leaks of this so far. So, I think it's our best guess is it's the Israelis. But in the Iranian's eyes, we're allied with them and we may as well be responsible. I think Fareed is absolutely right. We're seeing this shadow war starting to escalate and in a serious way.

Anderson Cooper: If Iran does, in fact, have the U.S. drone from an intelligence standpoint, how bad is that? Somebody compared it to dropping a Ferrari in an ox-cart-technology culture, basically saying Iran wouldn't have any idea what to do with it. Do you agree that?

Fareed Zakaria: Not at all. I think that's absurd. Remember, this is a fairly advanced country. This is an advanced society. It is 90 million people. They are producing centrifuges by the dozens. They are moving on a nuclear program.

The drone is also very advanced technology that they would be very interested in. It's very recent. This is a big deal. I would be interested to know what Bob thinks. But it strikes me that this exposes very vulnerable, very new American technology.

Also remember, the Iranians now have something that the Chinese and Russians want. And there are various ways they can share it with plausible deniability. They can do photographs. They can do blueprints. So, all of a sudden they have something that the Russians envy and the Chinese want. So guess what? The next time there are U.N. Security Council sanctions the Russians and Chinese are going to have a series of interesting conversations with the Iranians.

Anderson Cooper: Bob, do you agree with that? This is technology that Iranians might share with the Russians, the Chinese?

Robert Baer: Absolutely. I mean, if the Iranians themselves can't get into this and figure out how it works, they'll invite the Chinese in from one of these parastatal companies. They'll look at it. And this is extremely damaging because this drone had, you know, thermal imaging cameras. The resolution on the photography is very, very good. And as we know, it's the same drone that was used to surveil bin Laden's compound before the raid. And it plays a key role in collecting intelligence as it does against Iranian nuclear facilities.

Anderson Cooper: So, Bob, I mean,countries like China and Russia, they don't have this drone technology already?

Robert Baer: Not this good, no. I mean, we truly are at the best. We've been working at it for ten years. It's been a key element in the war in Afghanistan and Iraq and over the tribal areas of Pakistan. I think this is another intelligence catastrophe.

Anderson Cooper: Fareed, it is amazing the extent to which the drones have really impacted the battlefield in Pakistan and Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Fareed Zakaria: I think one forgets that terrorist organizations, you know, are very small groups with leaders who are absolutely crucial. And what the drone is able to do is to exploit that disadvantage that terrorist organizations have. They are not large institutional structures that can go on without key leaders. So, you can target a few key people with a drone - and the drones have gotten increasingly accurate - and you have enormous advantages because can you disrupt the entire organization.

The war against al Qaeda has really been a war against the senior leadership using drones. You can't underestimate the importance of it. And this is one of the unique weapons in America's arsenal. The Chinese don't have it. The Russians don't have it. To the best of our knowledge, nobody in the world has something like this.

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Topics: China • Intelligence • Iran • Russia • Technology • Terrorism

soundoff (340 Responses)
  1. TowelHeads

    They'll probably tie it to a horse and fly it like a kite.

    December 12, 2011 at 4:30 pm | Reply
  2. Alexander

    I guess, the smartest way for US officials to react to this event is TO ACCEPT the Iranian version than Iranians managed to hack-in into the computers, then accuse Iran of HIJACKING the areal vehicle while it was still over Afghanistan, and, correspondingly, DEMAND immediate return of unlawfully "stolen property". Make an international consensus of NATO and Eastern-European democracies who would unanimously condemn the piracy committed by Iranian hackers. Basically take the advantage of the moment when Iran insist (i.e., confess) that they brought the drone by taking-over control and let Iran to fall into the trap set up by its own propaganda.

    ...well, it is kind of too late now. Leaking all these "we considered bombing the crash suite, but quickly backed off" and denying that Iran coud take over control makes US look guilty now.

    December 12, 2011 at 5:28 pm | Reply
  3. matinB

    You guys have no clue!!! As an Iranian-American, I can say for sure this thing was not a spy drone but only a migrating bird (endangered species) going south and just passing through Iran. The mullah’s have captured and caged a nice defenceless bird. The UN and the Security Council should put a new round of sanctions on them so; they would let this majestic bird fly free once more.

    December 12, 2011 at 6:45 pm | Reply
  4. Gregkbell

    I have an engineering background in signal processing, so I think I can set some things straight. First off, these drones don't use GPS, because GPS can be locally corrupted. The drones have internal maps that are accurate to within 1.0 meters, so they have no need for GPS.

    Second, although the Iraniians have been able to read the video signal, they certainly cannot break the encrypted signals that control the aircraft.

    Third, we most certainly would have destroyed the drone if its recovery would have compromised our stealth technology.

    Therefore, it is obviously a trojan horse designed to: lead our enemies down dead-end design paths, to gather intel while it is being inspected, to download viruses, etc.

    December 12, 2011 at 9:52 pm | Reply
  5. Muin

    U.S claims that Iran is not a rational actor. That's why it shouldn't have nuclear weapon. U.S started using drones to target specific terrorists. That's fine because terrorists did not declare official war. So they have to be targeted if they are found hiding somewhere. Now U.S is invading another country's airspace without declaring official war. How is this act rational?

    December 13, 2011 at 7:22 am | Reply
  6. Broness

    The only way the technologically deprived Iran can control that drone is to push it around and off of a cliff.. just as bad as primates. Amadinijad is such a D- bag. What a power hungry wanna-be loon!!! LMAO!!!!

    December 13, 2011 at 12:48 pm | Reply
  7. johnny

    If this drone is just an unmanned survellience aircraft, Iran has no reason to steal it.

    But the more I think about it, this stolen drone story, I am positive that there is more to it than meets the eye.

    I thought a drones would self destruct if it lost its way or is stolen by the enemy? I sense Iran is unwittingly fallen into a carefully planned trap,

    Watchout for crude oil price to reach record high soon. The Gulf region and the straits of Hormutz might become the next war zone. albeit a short war only. Iran is not a strong warring nation because their soldiers are unwilling fighters just like Saddam's army was.

    December 13, 2011 at 9:54 pm | Reply
  8. LookMoo

    The Iranians are firmly stuck in the year of 632 (if you are a Muslim you understand the importance of that date.)..

    Sure the Iranians could have done it.. but judged from their history, technical level it is unlikely that they pulled this off with no help from China or Russia. As you are all well aware about there have been reports of drone with control problems the last years, not only for drone operating over Iran but on other places as well.

    After all China provide the bulk of all PCB boards to USA, the lowest bidders win. One infected PCB board/chip successfully planted in the logistic supply chain is all you needs.

    As I understand from friend working with such technology advanced drones have:
    1. Command an control system
    2. Back up command and control system
    3. Return to base subroutine
    (but no bomb-based self destruct mechanism)

    The the unknown ADVERSARY have been successful not only in hijacking the drone but disable all subroutines as well. If China or any other advanced nation was not involved it was probably an accident.

    December 14, 2011 at 7:21 pm | Reply
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