Drones a litmus test on trust in government

March 18, 2013

By Steven Greenhut

SACRAMENTO -– Don’t you hate it when life starts to resemble one of those bleak, futuristic dystopian movies? I’m thinking of an almost unfathomable reality –- local and state governments are joining the feds in buying unmanned aerial vehicles -– drones -– to patrol the skies.

Many uses for drones are innocent enough, such as for scientific endeavors and search-and-rescue missions, but many 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, for example, monitor the border, search for drug dealers, hunt alleged criminals and target alleged terrorists.

Records obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation found scores of applications from local governments for drone permits, as well as widespread patrolling of U.S. skies by military officials. We’re familiar with conspiracy theorists, who warned of “black helicopters” and a military takeover of our society. But these drones are far more advanced than helicopters -– and thousands of them might be quietly circling overhead within a few years.

The ramifications of our drone-ization

robocop-posterThis 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 than a terrorist attack. Yet, Americans seem insufficiently concerned about the ramifications of the drone-ization of society.

Again, some uses for drones are benign -– but their widespread use by government 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 operating these aircraft, leading to multiple crashes at busy airports. In other words, this video-game-like process is leading to real-world 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-endorsed reason for the intrusion.

The Bill of Rights puts strong emphasis on due legal process and on protecting citizens from unwarranted search and seizure because those are among the cornerstones of a free society. The New York Times found that drone operators at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico practice their skills by tracking and spying on the occupants of civilian cars driving near the base, which is a small reminder that there is always the temptation for government to abuse 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.

The filibuster that created a national debate

rand.paul.filibusterRand Paul’s 13-hour Senate filibuster, his way of demanding that the president detail his policy on killing Americans via drone strikes on U.S. soil, succeeded on several counts. The administration ultimately did respond.

The marathon of talking, which delayed the confirmation vote on a new CIA director, pushed the drone issue onto the national agenda. And it assembled the beginnings of a political coalition that defies typical partisan boundaries.

Left-leaning news site Politico saw Paul’s concern as part of an “increasingly hysterical strain of conservative thought.” MSNBC’s typically liberal viewers supported the “targeted killing of Americans” by 78 percent to 22 percent in an online poll.

On the right, Sen. John McCain mocked Paul, his fellow Republican senator, 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.”

The Journal’s editorial writers are missing something that Paul’s supporters seem to understand: If government officials are left to determine an “enemy combatant,” they will tend to draw that distinction as broadly as possible.

Then, there is the collateral damage. “[A] new study from researchers at NYU and Stanford concludes that as many 881 civilians -– including 176 children -– have been killed by U.S. drone strikes in northern Pakistan since 2004,” said Reason magazine’s Meredith Bragg and Nick Gillespie. It’s naive to think that domestic uses will always be handled without problem.

Just how much do you trust your government?

The new dividing line is the same as the old one: It’s between those Americans who, in the spirit of our founders, recognize that our own government can become a serious threat to our liberties, and those who are so trusting of government that they are willing to give it nearly unlimited powers to “protect” us.

Hence, we’re seeing coalitions of Democrats and Republicans pushing limits on states’ use of drones, just as we’re seeing coalitions of Democrats and Republicans criticizing those of us fearful about the militarization of society. In California, for instance, a bipartisan bill (Assembly Bill 1327) would place some modest limits on drone use by local agencies.

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.

Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Write to him at [email protected]


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  1. CJ
    CJ 18 March, 2013, 10:14

    Trust in Government?… give me a break.

    How much of American Tax payer money has already gone to prop up the EU ? Now the EU is stealing from the bank accounts of the citizens and our government by way of the IMF is a co conspirator.

    God Bless America and may god save our soul… The new national anthem for American freedom is Taps.

    Reply this comment
  2. Ted Steele, Navigator
    Ted Steele, Navigator 18 March, 2013, 13:23

    Honestly– Rand Paul is a kook.

    Serously? You think the gov is going to send drones to take out US cit’s here in the US?

    Building 7 at the WTC?
    Roswell aliens?

    Reply this comment
  3. StevefromSacto
    StevefromSacto 18 March, 2013, 18:01

    Steve-o and his Watchdog buds have no problems putting drones in people’s bedrooms to make sure there are no gay marriages or abortions.

    Reply this comment
  4. Donkey
    Donkey 18 March, 2013, 20:15

    A government RAGWUS feeder somewhere will kill a citizen using a drone in the same manner that Doug Zerby was delt with, and no one in the LE RAGWUS will be held accountable.

    Give these GED mental midgets a toy and they will abuse the people with it as soon as possible.

    Cowards thrive in government bureaucries,but why are they so fearful of the people? They are afraid of the truth and light, because living in the dark has made them small and weak. 🙂

    Reply this comment
  5. Hondo
    Hondo 18 March, 2013, 21:48

    It’s the 2,700 armed tanks that DHS just bought along with more than a billion rounds of ammo that scares me.
    Obama is preparing for war with Arkansas, not Al Queda. None of those tanks are anywhere near any border.

    Reply this comment
  6. Ted Steele, The Decider
    Ted Steele, The Decider 18 March, 2013, 21:48

    LOL– Poor Duncey—-The cabal is closing in little buddy! Quick! Get your tin foil hat!

    Reply this comment
  7. Ted Steele, The Decider
    Ted Steele, The Decider 18 March, 2013, 21:50

    Honda! You got that right! The Pres and Fema ARE preparing to drone strike anyone who owns an assault weapon! PLEASE be careful out there! And CWD posters—- Please don’t think that you’re strange and paranoid in any way– you guys are just fine….

    Carry on little buddies!!

    Reply this comment
  8. Donkey
    Donkey 19 March, 2013, 08:01

    Teddy Steals, yea, the 102 bullits fired at the two womwn delivering papers was just a fluke, or the murder of Zerby, MacDonald, and Kelly Thomas.

    As a government propaganda tool, you are doing your job, just like Bagdad Bob did his for Saddam, you are the perfect fool for Barrak!! 🙂

    Reply this comment
  9. Ted Steele, Navigator
    Ted Steele, Navigator 19 March, 2013, 08:51

    Bad things do happen Duncey—I can name even more than those three. I don’t defend them. Re Kelly Thomas– we’ll see what the jury says.

    Reply this comment
  10. Donkey
    Donkey 19 March, 2013, 09:22

    Oh, I can also name plenty more Steals, that is why I have reservations about putting drones in the arsenal of police departments.

    Bad things happen because vile, sociopathic people work in government, not all, but enough to have policies like no knock raids on homes, the 21 foot rule, and immunity from the stupidity of firing 102 bullits at innocent paper delivery women. 🙂

    Reply this comment
  11. Ted Steele, Navigator
    Ted Steele, Navigator 19 March, 2013, 10:43

    We can all name more Duncey. It’s the price of using humans to enforce the laws of our social compact. Robots maybe? Or how about the honor system?

    Bad and vile people work in government? Well, a few maybe for sure like in any human population.

    You remain a kook sir. But you’re fun. Have a super duper day little buddy!

    Reply this comment
  12. Donkey
    Donkey 19 March, 2013, 14:34

    Steals. you are the kook, and everyday of my life has be super. Now sit back down in your cubicle and earn your government check watching porn. 🙂

    Reply this comment
  13. Ted Steele, The Decider
    Ted Steele, The Decider 20 March, 2013, 06:45

    LOL — no– you are.

    Poor Duncey— unarmed in a battle of wits…..

    Reply this comment
  14. C.J.
    C.J. 20 March, 2013, 23:15

    The sad truth is that crime and criminals will continue to thrive.
    Meanwhile, law-abiding citizens will increasingly fall victim to this “Skynet.”

    The fact is that movies like “Matrix” and “Terminator” were inspired by real government-funded research that the script writers were privy to.

    This is GOING to happen. The appetite of power-mad government bureaucrats for every shred of information about you, your family, your friends, your habits, etc. is INSATIABLE.

    YOUR government owns and operates “endless fields” of supercomputers simulating every aspect of our American life – all 300 million of us. One of their highest priorities is to “fill in the blanks” with real information about real people. That means YOU.

    Reply this comment
  15. Ted Steele, The Decider
    Ted Steele, The Decider 21 March, 2013, 06:46

    CJ– You are 100% correct. And you have to ask yourself this– Why hasn’t the federal gov EVER admitted it has the Roswell alien bodies?

    They must think we are rubes!

    Reply this comment
  16. Chief661
    Chief661 21 March, 2013, 13:26

    @ Ted Steele, do you honestly believe that since many of us don’t trust cops any longer we are all in need of tin foil hats? I hope not because if you can’t read and understand what is going on in America today you haven’t studied history and are, at best, naive. I don’t believe in Roswell aliens, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster or Crop Circles; not sure about the FEMA camps yet, but I do see that America is not the same place I grew up in during the 50’s and 60’s and the cops today suffer from poor selection and hiring practices, overt militarization, PC run amok and the post 9/11 “everyone is terrorist syndrome”. I worked with PD as a FF Lt. and EMS Chief and as a small town volunteer EMA Director, that would be OES if you hail from La La Land. I know that we had our share of rogue LEO types who would pepper spray or tase you faster than you can imagine for almost anything that ticked them off. Back in the late 90’s and early 2000’s those types were starting to outnumber the ones I could/would trust. Now..forget it. I keep my mouth shut around any cops and avoid them like the plague. Just remember they have no legal obligation to protect you, their goal is “office safety” and if they have to put you in or on the ground to keep so, they will. Maybe you’re a troll, or what we FF called a s_ _t stirrer; I’m not sure. Either way, wake up, seriously, and smell the coffee.

    Reply this comment
  17. Ted Steele, Navigator
    Ted Steele, Navigator 21 March, 2013, 13:40

    Chief– YES indeed— if you have a pervasive and widespread distrust of cops that leads you to action– I DO think you need a tin foil hat. Yes.

    I have seen good cops and bad ones–exactly like ANY other professuion/occupation. Without documenting my CV, I too have extensive experience crossing over into the LE world. For every bad cop story I can tell you 5 good ones easy.

    Should your caution be up? Yes of course. In life you should walk alert to whats around you, but I have far more paranoia from the knowlege of the thousands of parolees that i know live in my County, than from the fuzz little buddy.

    Reply this comment
  18. Ted Steele, Navigator
    Ted Steele, Navigator 21 March, 2013, 13:41

    Oh— and RECEO little buddy!

    Reply this comment
  19. Ted Steele, Navigator
    Ted Steele, Navigator 21 March, 2013, 15:37

    I’m going to miss this thread

    Reply this comment
  20. Gerne Blanston
    Gerne Blanston 12 June, 2014, 15:37

    Using DHS grant funding for something that actually protects the public and supports the concept of public safety is much better than all the misuse and fraud involving homeland security funds that Cal EMA/OES has been accused of doing for years.

    Reply this comment

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