Due to the wall-to-wall coverage of Whitney Houston's death, I almost missed ABC Nightline's report last week on the domestic use of unmanned drones. Titled "Who is Watching You? Military drones are being used by everyone from real estate agents to paparazzi," the report attempts to highlight privacy concerns about the use of unmanned drones on domestic soil. In the process, reporter Jim Avila shamelessly glorifies our use of armed drones elsewhere.
"Drones: Once our unmanned heroes in war zones, are now in the hands of real estate agents," Avila intones as ABC plays footage of a realtor using a drone to show a property. “These are the closest cousins of terrorist-fighting, robot heroes in Agfhanistan and Iraq,” Avila says later in the segment. (More Avila drone euphemisms: "An engineering marvel"; "a rare secret weapon.")
The privacy issue, Avila says, "makes the new domestic drones as unintentionally dangerous to Americans and their privacy as they are intentionally lethal to terrorists overseas.” It would behoove ABC, in a five-minute segment, to illustrate our ocassional misuse of these "rare secret weapons," and the fact they sometimes kill people who are not terrorists.
In November, Clive Stafford Smith did exactly that for The New York Times when he reported on the tragic death of 16-year-old Tariq Aziz:
The next day, the jirga lasted several hours. I had a translator, but the gist of each man’s speech was clear. American drones would circle their homes all day before unleashing Hellfire missiles, often in the dark hours between midnight and dawn. Death lurked everywhere around them.
When it was my turn to speak, I mentioned the official American position: that these were precision strikes and no innocent civilian had been killed in 15 months. My comment was met with snorts of derision.
I told the elders that the only way to convince the American people of their suffering was to accumulate physical proof that civilians had been killed. Three of the men, at considerable personal risk, had collected the detritus of half a dozen missiles; they had taken 100 pictures of the carnage.
In one instance, they matched missile fragments with a photograph of a dead child, killed in August 2010 during the C.I.A.’s period of supposed infallibility. This made their grievances much more tangible.
Collecting evidence is a dangerous business. The drones are not the only enemy. The Pakistani military has sealed the area off from journalists, so the truth is hard to come by. One man investigating drone strikes that killed civilians was captured by the Taliban and held for 63 days on suspicion of spying for the United States.
At the end of the day, Tariq stepped forward. He volunteered to gather proof if it would help to protect his family from future harm. We told him to think about it some more before moving forward; if he carried a camera he might attract the hostility of the extremists.
But the militants never had the chance to harm him. On Monday, he was killed by a C.I.A. drone strike, along with his 12-year-old cousin, Waheed Khan. The two of them had been dispatched, with Tariq driving, to pick up their aunt and bring her home to the village of Norak, when their short lives were ended by a Hellfire missile.
"Hero" is perhaps too strong a title for a piece of technology, especially considering that it ocassionally kills children.
Futhermore, the privacy threat posed by aerial surveillance is not hypothetical. We've already seen, as in the case of New Mexico man Norman Davis, whose home was raided after a National Guard helicopter spotted marijuana plants on his property, that law enforcement agencies currently use aerial surveillance technology in violation of the Fourth Amendment. It's probably even fair to say that challenges to domestic use of unmanned drones by law enforcement will be on Fourth Amendment grounds; yet Avila makes no mention of that amendment in his report.