If you drive west from Marfa, Texas toward El Paso, you’ll cross some 200 miles of uniquely beautiful desert valleys and mountains that run astride the Mexican border. It’s a serene ride. On a sunny morning last spring, however, as I traversed this stretch, my tranquility was interrupted by something odd that appeared on the far horizon, about 20 miles distant. Coming closer to the object, curiosity turned to chill, for it gradually dawned on me that I was seeing a dark harbinger of our society’s future. Hovering in the sky was a technological presence that the Powers That Be are eager to make ubiquitous throughout our country: A drone.
Officially called “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles” (UAV’s), some are very large, some tiny, some can fly sideways and backwards, some can operate from eight miles up, some can hang motionless in the sky (“hover and stare” is the industry’s spooky term for this capability)–and all can silently surveill whatever is occurring beneath them for miles around. The particular pilotless aircraft that I saw belonged to the Customs and Border Protection agency, a Homeland Security division that presently has nine clones of this drone technology “watching” for drug smugglers and immigrants crossing illegally into our country from any spot along the 2,000-mile border the US shares with Mexico. CBP agents, sitting at terminals in windowless buildings as far away as North Dakota, direct the pan-optic sweep of these unblinking, computerized eyes in the sky.
Just being under its gaze was eerie. Even though I was not a target of its all-encompassing electronic watch, I still felt queasy, felt an involuntary twinge of intimidation, felt unsettled, and… well, watched. Who wants to live like that?
Most Americans, if they give any thought at all to drones, connect them to remote-controlled rocket attacks by our military and CIA in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and wherever else the executive branch unilaterally chooses to target an individual or group to be spied upon… or assassinated. These killer drones are “piloted” by operators here at home who never leave the ground or personally confront the danger of combat. Safely and secretly ensconced in special, locked-down computer rooms on Air Force bases across the country, their “weapons” are video screens, keystrokes, and joysticks that cause an unmanned aircraft several thousand miles away to fire its missiles at unsuspecting targets.
Much has been written recently about some of the horrors resulting from this new kind of war-from-afar, so this issue of the Lowdown won’t dwell on the foreign combat aspect. Yet the secrecy, lies, and casual disregard for the moral and constitutional violations that have per- mitted America’s rush into drone warfare should put us on guard against the present rush for a mass deployment of drones here at home.
Consider, for example, that in the eight years since the Bush-Cheney regime began using UAV’s as killing machines abroad (including Team Obama’s drastic escalation of their use since 2009), Congress has never once debated–much less voted on–the propriety of this radical change in how we conduct war. Today, a third of all America’s military aircraft are drones, up from only five percent in 2005.
Only in January of last year did the President finally acknowledge that the CIA is indeed running a shadow war with these high-tech, extra-judicial UAV attacks. Even then, Obama professed with a straight face that this shouldn’t bother anyone, because he, the Pentagon, and the CIA keep drone use on a “very tight leash.” His top counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan (now nominated to head the CIA), gilded this prevarication with the preposterous claim that the proliferation of drone strikes is okay, even ethical, because they only kill the targeted bad guys. Referring to strikes between May 2010 and June 2011 that killed more than 600 militants, Brennan declared: “There hasn’t been a single collateral death, because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the [drone] capabilities we’ve been able to develop.” In fact, as many as 279 innocents, including children, were killed by CIA drones in that period–a reality confirmed by independent investigators and chilling first-hand accounts by keening villagers.
We should hold tight to the memory of yesterday’s high-level lying about drones, because more insistent and louder lies are coming tomorrow. Not only will we hear them from the Administration, but also from a covey of congressional cheerleaders, an army of corporate executives and lobbyists, a mess of money-hungry universities, and most of your local law enforcement officials–all of whom are in a hallelujah chorus singing songs of dissimulation about the virtues of UAV’s. We’ll be told that those feral military drones have now been thoroughly domesticated for homeland use, and we rubes should welcome the little robotic rascals into our communities with open arms and grateful hearts.
The soft pitch
Editorial cartoonist and satirist Tom Tomorrow, whose wonderful wit tempers his well-honed sense of political outrage, has created a characterhe’s dubbed “Droney–the friendly drone.” That pretty well sums up the industry’s PR pitch for allowing thousands of these camera-bearing aerial contraptions to swarm into our skies (and lives). A child gets lost, a farmer needs to monitor weed growth, homeowners are worried about the exact path of a flood or wildfire, a city seeks a detailed mapping of its 24-hour traffic flow, police are trying to pinpoint the location of a meth lab in a rural county–in every case, Droney is our friend!
Plus, say proponents, this is going to be a huge, multibillion-dollar industry, a new source of economic growth and jobs just when America most needs it. So, let us not dillydally, let’s get cracking.
Excuse us, said a host of privacy organizations, but do you know where you’re going? Noting that technological “friends” can (and often do) become the foes of liberty, they pointed out that police authorities at all levels of government are clamoring to have their very own fleets of Ravens, Wasps, Pumas, Hummingbirds, T-Hawks, Predators, Cobras, ScanEagles, Reapers, Dragonfliers, and other brand-name drones–a demand that is more than a little troubling to Americans who treasure their First and Fourth Amendments.
Cheap, small, noiseless, and practically invisible, drones take snooping to a whole new level. Equipped with super-high-powered lenses, infrared and ultraviolet imaging, radar that can see through walls, video analytics, and “swarm” technologies that use a group of drones that operate in concert to allow surveillers to watch an entire city–these devices are made to be intrusive. And, of course, they can be “weaponized” to let police agents advance from intrusion to repression.
In other words, this is not about a dazzling new technology. We are on a fast track to becoming a society under routine, pervasive surveillance. As the ACLU put it in an excellent December 2011 report on the UAV threat, such a development “would profoundly change the character of public life in the United States.”
It’s worth adding that public authorities are not the only ones who’ll be getting UAV’s. Corporations have a keen interest in their potential for surreptitious monitoring of environmentalists, union leaders, protesters, and competitors. Plus, those being watched might well want to keep track of those who’re tracking them. Divorce lawyers, private investigators, political operatives, and others who snoop for a living will surely find drones attractive. Individuals–from hobbyists to survivalists–are already building their own. And won’t criminals get them, too?
Now is the time for the public to intervene, before our basic rights are subverted in the name of technological “progress.” Among the questions We The People need to answer is the big one: Should we even allow this swarm of what the New York Times calls “Orwellian gnats” to exist in our Land of the Free?
The hard pitch
Drone enthusiasts generally offer a one-word response to anyone concerned about the technology’s negative impacts: Thbbbbblllttt. “Out of the way,” they bellow, as they try to muscle UAV’s into law, pushing furiously to get it done before the public learns what’s going down.
Who are “they?” Meet AUVSI, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. When this association’s spokespeople are interviewed, media outlets (from Fox to NPR) invariably identify AUVSI with the benign phrase, “an industry trade group.” But what it trades in is raw political power. It’s the lobbying front for drone makers, led by the likes of Boeing, General Atomics, General Dynamics, Honeywell, L-3 Communications, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, Saab Group, SAIC, and many others. You’ll recognize these giants as the A-team of the military-industrial complex, and they’re now licking their chops at the enormous profiteering potential of the drone-industrial complex.
AUVSI is tighter than the bark on a tree with another very muscular group: The House Unmanned Systems Caucus (aka the Congressional Drone Caucus). Some 60 members strong, it’s ramrodded by Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, an industry trusty from Santa Clarita, California, who also happens to chair the colossally powerful Armed Services Committee. The caucus is blunt about its bias and purpose: To “actively support further development and acquisition of more [drone] systems;” to “acknowledge the overwhelming value of these systems;” to “recognize the urgent need to rapidly develop and deploy more [UAV’s];” and to support federal “budgets that promote a larger, more robust national security unmanned system capability.”
Now, guess who is the top recipient of campaign bucks from drone makers? Of course, Buck! He pocketed $833,650 in drone cash for his last two campaigns. The caucus as a whole was blessed with some $8 million in drone donations over the past four years– 77 percent going to its GOP members.
In return, Buck and the Boys (okay, eight female reps are also in the caucus) were the stalwarts behind a special provision in the “FAA Modernization and Reform Act” signed by Obama last year on Feb. 14. Yes, Valentine’s Day. Prior to this law, the Federal Aviation Administration, which must approve any license for putting a drone into US airspace, had been proceeding cautiously. Agency officials worry (as do airline pilots) that these unregulated, pilotless gnats won’t be seen and can’t be avoided by planes loaded with people.
The little valentine that AUVSI’s members got from the “reform” law was a direct order to the FAA to speed up its approval of drone licenses, commanding the agency to allow unmanned aircraft to enter “safely” into our skies by the arbitrary date of September 15, 2015. Smaller drones (under 55 pounds) are to be authorized this year.
Who wrote this provision? Not Ol’ Buck or the committee, but lobbyists for the drone makers! Lee Fang, an intrepid, dig-it-out investigative journalist, recently unearthed a PowerPoint presentation by AUVSI lobbyists to their clients in which they gloated that “the only changes made to the [drone] section of the House FAA bill were made at the request of AUVSI. Our suggestions were often taken word-for-word.”
The smell of gold is in the air, and the rush is on. Governors, mayors, potential suppliers, economic development officials, and universities (from Carnegie Mellon to Central Oregon Community College) are being enticed to sniff the financial possibilities of limitless federal money and being rallied into the spreading drone complex. This boom, exclaimed AUVSI’s president in a national media blast, “will create jobs and boost local economies across the country.” (Oddly, he cited a “study” by his group estimating that the drone economy would produce 23,000 new jobs by 2025. Hello–that’s less than 2,000 a year! Lawn mowing is a better job creator than that.)
Joining the boosterism last June was the US Senate Armed Services Committee. In a report, it took a whip to the Pentagon, FAA, and NASA, demanding that drone deployment be “expedited” and given “the ability to operate freely and routinely” in our national airspace.
The goal of the pushers is to have a startling 30,000 of these pilotless contrivances zipping through the air by 2020. Holy moly! Our nation’s entire commercial fleet of passenger and cargo planes numbers only about 7,000. And lest you think that 30,000 drones is an industry fantasy, a map compiled from military records discloses that as of last June the Pentagon alone already had 64 drone bases throughout our country, with another 22 bases planned. The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 prohibits the military from operating on American soil, but there it is. What are they doing? We don’t know. But it’s time to ask.
In addition, the Department of Homeland Security signed a $443 million contract with General Atomics last November to buy more drones for its border patrols division, and it also said it intends to more than double its overall fleet (though agency plans for drone use beyond the border are unspecified). This rapid expansion is being pushed by DHS officials despite a finding last year by the department’s own inspector general that drones are ineffective for border security and that DHS’s drone program is a waste of money and lacks oversight.
Besides its own UAV infatuation, DHS is leading the feds’ effort to get government agencies at all levels to drone-ify their missions. The super-secret agency runs a “lending” program that disperses its UAV’s to the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, and state and local police for undisclosed law enforcement actions. It also has a grant program to “facilitate and accelerate” drone use by giving local police the cash to buy their own (one UAV manufacturer, Vanguard Defense Industries, even advertises on its website that any police department wanting one of these babies should go to DHS for a drone grant). Again, DHS makes no disclosure of these disbursements or the purpose of the purchases, but watchdog groups have uncovered police departments in Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Texas, Utah, and Washington State flying drones.
The insidious intention of security agents is to make these seeing-eye drones so ubiquitous that they are accepted by you and me as normal. But there’s nothing normal about the American people meekly living in a watched society, perpetually monitored by flying cameras that also are weaponized with tasers, tear gas, rubber bullets, and what-have-you (including real bullets and explosives). Vanguard’s CEO marveled at the possibilities: “You have a stun baton where you can actually engage somebody at altitude with the aircraft.”
As constitutional lawyer and writer Glenn Greenwald warns: “The potential for abuse is vast.” He characterized life in DroneAmerica: “The escalation in surveillance they ensure is substantial, and the effect they have on the culture of personal privacy–having the state employ hovering, high-tech, stealth video cameras that invade homes and other private spaces–is simply creepy.”
The good news is that the industry and its cohorts have been recently stunned by a remarkable left-right counterpunch. They are not only being confronted by such progressive opponents of their liberty-busting gambit as the ACLU, CodePink, and Rep. Ed Markey in the US House–but also a determined bunch of Republican privacy defenders in Congress and the media, including Sen. Rand Paul, “Morning Joe” Scarborough on MSNBC, Bloomberg columnist Ramesh Ponnuru, and even far-right Fox commentator Charles Krauthammer, who says: “I don’t want restrictions [on drones]–I want a ban.”
Already, this surprising coalition has succeeded in delaying FAA approval of the six US test sites required for putting UAV’s in the air by 2015. In a letter to the Buckster (Rep. McKeon) last November, FAA’s acting director rightly declared that “the use of [drones] also raises privacy issues,” so the agency intends to pause in order for all parties “to appropriately address privacy concerns.”
Naturally, AUVSI exploded in righteous indignation at such an affront to its rush-rush profiteering timetable. “The FAA is not a privacy organization,” sputtered the front group’s top lobbyist, and eight industry bigwigs fired off a letter to the acting administrator, essentially saying: “Ignore privacy!”
Such a plea is as futile as it is arrogant, for Americans of all political stripes (from Greens to Libertarians) hold the rights of privacy, free assembly, and speech dear. Republican Rep. Ted Poe of Texas, for example, is a hard-right conservative, but he gets it that nothing could be more genuinely conservative than conserving those fundamental rights. Last July 24, Poe took to the House floor to shout out to all of us citizens a timely update of Paul Revere’s legendary cry: “The drones are coming!”
He’s chairman of the subcommittee on homeland security, so he’s not just pissing in the wind. He, Rep. Markey, Sen. Paul, and others are sponsoring similar bills to rein in the harum-scarum drive to infest our skies and society with drones.
Not only is this a fight that grassroots people can win against the profiteers and privacy invaders–but it’s one we must win. The Lowdown’s Do Something will link you to action.