SIGONELLA AIR BASE, ITALY: US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta on Friday acknowledged what has long been an open secret - that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) deploys armed Predator drones to hunt down militants in a number of countries.
The US government has previously officially declined to admit that the spy agency's drone strikes, but Panetta - who served as Central Intelligence Agency director until taking over the Pentagon in July -made two casual references to the CIA's use of robotic aircraft during a visit to US bases in Italy.
"Having moved from the CIA to the Pentagon, obviously I have a hell of a lot more weapons available to me in this job than I did at CIA -although Predators aren't bad," Panetta told an audience of sailors at the US Navy's Sixth Fleet headquarters in Naples.
Later at a joint US-Italian air base in Sigonella, Panetta thanked air crews for their role in the NATO air campaign over Libya as he stood in front of a Global Hawk drone, a larger unmanned aircraft that flies at high altitude for surveillance missions and is not armed.
Panetta cited the important role of drones in the Libya operation, including the Predator drones.
Predators are "something I was very familiar with in my past job," he said. During his tenure as the CIA chief, a majority of drone strikes by US were conducted inside Afghanistan and Pakistan.
After Panetta spoke, a Predator drone took off from the base - right on cue.
The military does not hide its own drone flights in Libya or the war in Afghanistan, in contrast to the CIA's covert missions to take out al Qaeda extremists in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere.
It was not the first time Panetta has made references to the drone programme, which US officials credit with severely weakening al Qaeda.
As CIA director, he once alluded to the drone strikes against al Qaeda as "the only game in town".
The Drones are infected with computer virus
A scoop by Wired.com magazine revealed that the drone programme had been recently struck by a virus.
The virus, which does not affect the ability of the remote operator to control or fire from the aircraft, records the pilot's every keystroke, compiling a log and sending it back to the worm creator.
The virus has so far resisted all attempts by technicians to remove the offending piece of code.
“We keep wiping it off, and it keeps coming back,” says a source familiar with the network infection, one of three that told Danger Room about the virus. “We think it’s benign. But we just don’t know.”
According to Wired, one officer said that the virus could most probably be a common malware. While in itself it cannot harm the system, it could be potentially dangerous given to whom it communicates the logged keystrokes outside of military networks.