The Threat of Domestic Drones
Confronting America's dystopian future
Don't you hate it when life turns into one of those dystopian movies? I'm thinking of an almost unfathomable reality—local and state governments are joining the feds in buying unmanned aerial vehicles, known as drones, to patrol the skies.
Many drone uses are innocent enough, such as for scientific purposes and search and rescue missions, but most cities are grabbing Department of Homeland Security grants to buy these devices as part of their ongoing law-enforcement efforts. Agencies want to use them to monitor the border, search for drug dealers, hunt down alleged criminals and target alleged terrorists.
Records obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation found scores of applications from local governments for permits, as well as widespread patrolling of U.S. skies by military officials. We all used to mock conspiracy types who feared "black helicopters" and military take-overs. But these drones are far more advanced than these imagined helicopters—and thousands of them might be flying overhead in the next few years.
This brings to mind images of that cheesy 1987 movie, Robocop, in which a cyborg police officer battles thugs. These days, crime rates are at nearly historic lows, and we're as likely to die from a meteor strike as a terrorist attack. Yet Americans seem insufficiently concerned about the ramifications of the drone-ization of society. Again, some uses are benign—but widespread government use of them raises serious questions.
There are some practical concerns. For instance, a Washington Post article from November found that poorly trained military contractors were making repeated blunders in their operation of these aircraft, leading to multiple crashes at highly populated airports. In other words, this video-game-like process is leading to real dangers.
But the biggest fear involves our freedoms. We should be able to live our lives without being constantly monitored by the authorities—unless the authorities have a specific, court-backed reason for the intrusion.
The Bill of Rights puts such emphasis on due process and on protecting citizens from unwarranted search and seizure because those are the cornerstones of a free society. The New York Times found that drone operators at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico practice by tracking and spying on the occupants in civilian cars driving near the base, which is a small reminder that the government always abuses its powers.
There are so many laws and regulations on the books that Americans are rightly worried about how closely the government should watch us.
Sen. Rand Paul's 13-hour filibuster demanding that the president detail his policy on killing Americans via drone strikes succeeded on several counts. The administration did ultimately answer his demand. The talk placed the drone issue on the national agenda. And it assembled the beginnings of a new civil-libertarian coalition that defies normal political boundaries.
Left-leaning Politico saw Paul's concern as part of an "increasingly hysterical strain of conservative thought." MSNBC's mostly liberal viewers supported the targeted killing of Americans" by 78 percent to 22 percent in an online poll, thus showing that many Democrats are concerned about civil liberties only when a Republican president is at the helm.
On the right, Sen. John McCain mocked Paul as "wacko." The hawkish Wall Street Journal labeled Paul's speech a rant and then lectured him: "The U.S. government cannot randomly target American citizens on U.S. soil or anywhere else. What it can do under the laws of war is target an 'enemy combatant' anywhere at any time, including on U.S. soil. This includes a U.S. citizen who is also an enemy combatant."
WSJ's editorial writers are missing something that Paul's supporters understand. If government officials are left to determine an "enemy combatant," they will draw that distinction as broadly as possible. And there will be collateral damage. "[A] new study from researchers at NYU and Stanford concludes that as many 881 civilians—including 176 children—have been killed by US drone strikes in northern Pakistan since 2004," according to Reason magazine's Meredith Bragg and Nick Gillespie. It's naive to think that domestic uses will always be handled without problem.
The new dividing line is the same as the old one: between those Americans who, in the spirit of our founding fathers, recognize that our own government often is the biggest threat to our liberties, and those who are so trusting of the government that they are willing to give it nearly unlimited powers to "protect" us.
Hence, we're seeing coalitions of Democrats and Republicans pushing state limits on the use of drones just as we're seeing coalitions of Democrats and Republicans making fun of those of us who are fearful about the continued militarization of society. In California, for instance, a bipartisan bill (AB 1327) would place some modest limits on drone use.
That's a welcome sign that there might be some pushback on this disturbing mix of government power and high technology. We better push back hard and fast—before our society more closely resembles some dark, futuristic Hollywood scenario.