That’s a good question — and according to former VP Dick Cheney’s contacts, Barack Obama didn’t lack for options to keep the highly-classified drone from falling into the Iranian military’s hands. In an interview with CNN’s Erin Burnett, Cheney wonders why Obama didn’t order an air strike on the downed aircraft while he still had the chance:

“The right response to that would have been to go in immediately after it had gone down and destroy it,” he said on CNN’s “Out Front with Erin Burnett.”

Instead, Cheney said, “he asked nicely for them to return it. They aren’t gonna do that. … Or, they’ll send it back to us in pieces after they’ve gotten all the intelligence out of it they can.” …

Cheney, who served with former President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2009, said he “was told the president had three options on his desk and he rejected all of them.” The options all involved destroying the drone on the ground.

“You can do that from the air,” he said. “And, in effect, make it impossible for them to benefit from having captured that drone.”

Iran doesn’t seem inclined to even return the pieces.  Their defense minister has declared the drone “Iran’s property,” and says they won’t return it to the US — a not-unexpected answer, given the fact that we were using it to spy on them.  Thanks to Obama’s decision to leave the drone intact for the Iranians to seize, there’s little point in denying that fact.

What will the Iranians do with it?  State-run TV in Iran announced that the military plans to reverse engineer it and “mass produce” their own spy drones.  Wired finds that unlikely, even if the Russians and Chinese pitch in to help for their own commercial purposes:

In other words, the Russian, Chinese and Iranian experts will probably try to figure out the “recipe” for the RQ-170′s alloys and non-metal composites, which help minimize the drone’s radar signature, as does its bat-like shape. And that’s where reverse-engineering starts to get complicated. “Someone will figure out the [materials’] composition,” the Boeing engineer explains, “but producing them is entirely a different matter.”

For the drone vivisectionists, it only gets worse. After examining the (alleged) RQ-170′s airframe, they will likely focus on its sensors. We don’t know for sure what devices the Sentinel carries, but it could include video cameras and a ground-mapping radar. The Darpa robot designer says the RQ-170′s radar — if it carries one — could share subsystems with the radars on the latest F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters, which might give U.S. adversaries some insight into how those planes operate, too.

But the designer isn’t too worried. “Even if [the radar] showed up completely intact, they may not know how to use it because they don’t know how to use the software.”

Moreover, the software includes classified anti-tamper measures. At least, it’s supposed to, according to the Boeing engineer. “Dumbest thing in the world if it didn’t.”

Well, perhaps we have nothing to worry about — or perhaps the two nations with the most expertise in copying American military systems will find a way to duplicate that success with the RQ-170.  If so, we have given away a significant strategic and tactical advantage, apparently because the Commander in Chief refused to pull the trigger to safeguard its secrets.