by Steven Greenhut | March 18, 2013 5:45 am
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.
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 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.
Rand 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.
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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