WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The State Department said on Monday it has used unarmed drones to help protect its diplomats overseas and the New York Times reported that the program had outraged senior Iraqi officials.
The department's spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, said its Bureau of Diplomatic Security had a program to use small aircraft known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to take pictures of U.S. facilities and personnel abroad.
At her daily briefing, Nuland declined to say where the drones had been deployed or whether they were still in use. An annual report for the Bureau of Diplomatic Security said they had been successfully tested in Iraq.
The New York Times, which first reported the program, said the State Department began operating some drones in Iraq last year on a trial basis and stepped up their use after the last American troops left Iraq in December.
The newspaper quoted a senior U.S. official as saying talks were under way to obtain authorization for the current drone operations in Iraq.
However the newspaper reported that three senior Iraqi officials - a top adviser to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, Iraq's national security adviser, and the acting minister of interior - said in interviews they had not been consulted.
Nuland repeatedly declined to address whether the U.S. government had obtained Iraqi permission to fly the drones, saying only that it always closely consulted with foreign governments about steps to protect U.S. diplomats.
"We do have an unmanned aerial vehicle program used by the State Department. These are tiny little things. They are not armed. They are not capable of being armed," she said.
"What they are designed to do is help give us pictures over our facilities to help in their protection," she said, adding that the program was limited in scope and would only be employed in "critical threat environments."
Asked how large the drones were, Nuland held her hands about 2 feet apart. A photograph in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security annual report showed a man holding one that appeared to be 4 or 5 feet long.
In addition to flying over facilities such as embassies, the drones can be used to track the routes and movements of U.S. diplomats as they travel within a country.
The New York Times posted a link to a U.S. government solicitation for firms to bid "to provide worldwide Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) support services" for up to five years.
"The mission of the UAV program is to provide real-time air surveillance of fixed installations, proposed movement routes and movement operations, and special events thereby improving security in high threat ... environments," it said.
The Iraqi embassy in Washington was not immediately available for comment. Telephone calls to its media office, ambassador's office and receptionist went unanswered.
Asked if the Iraqi government had complained about the program, Nuland replied: "I don't have any information to that effect at the moment."
Reporting By Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Eric Beech