The principal function of government since 9/11, even if unintentional, has been to develop strategies to reduce individual liberties and transfer power to the government while not appearing to do so. Of course, neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama actually explains it in those terms. They say instead that they are making Americans safer, but their actions belie their words, as today’s United States is if anything less safe, more authoritarian, and far poorer. Every expansion of the imperial mission overseas, which of course is being sold as a war against terrorists, has been accompanied by new legislation in the United States that has made all Americans less free. The most recent anti-terror legislation, the National Defense Authorization Act, enables the government to detain indefinitely any American citizen suspected of involvement in terrorism, without any due process and without any right to trial.
Drones are the new tool of American hegemony. They are described by administration spokesmen, when they are mentioned at all, as having a constabulary function. That means that the American lawman in the form of a mechanical drone is delivering justice in a part of the world where the local government is either too weak or unwilling to do its own policing. It is easy to see the flaw in the argument. Sending a U.S. marshal to arrest someone after due process has been observed and a warrant has been issued is quite different from sending a machine into some other nation’s airspace and killing from several thousand feet up a suspect who might well be an American citizen traveling with family members (who will also die). So drone policing is essentially both immoral and illegal, a conclusion that has finally been reached by the United Nations, among others.
There are considerable advantages to the use of drones from the government’s perspective. It has often been claimed that the Vietnam War finally ended when the reaction to the sight of thousands of coffins containing dead American soldiers reached a politically unsustainable level. The Pentagon learned a lesson and subsequently used massive firepower and high-tech weapons in Iraq and Afghanistan to reduce the number of U.S. dead even if it meant significantly increasing the collateral damage inflicted on civilians. Pursuing that logic led to the drone. The drone was originally intended to provide surveillance capability, but in its Predator version armed with Hellfire missiles, it can both surveil and kill. Advanced versions now being developed can observe, decide whether a target is viable, and execute those on the ground, all without any human intervention. Best of all, the drone kills people without any danger to American soldiers or bureaucrats, the ultimate video game adapted for real life. The ability to reduce U.S. casualties to zero makes the drone the perfect weapon, and it virtually guarantees that never-ending low-intensity warfare will become the new normal. And to those who object that assassinating by drone is engaging in warfare without any declaration of war or evidence that the targets are actually terrorists, the government will undoubtedly fall back on the constabulary argument: it is police action, not armed conflict. Failing that, the White House can hand over the operation to the CIA, which can carry out the missions based on a presidential finding, avoiding the rules of engagement and congressional oversight that might hamper the Pentagon. This is why the CIA is taking the lead in places such as Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.
If there is one universal truth, it is that once a new technology is developed, it will be used and a legal framework will quickly be devised to enable that to happen. Drones even have a trade association and lobby, the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International, or AUVSI. And what goes around overseas in a “war zone” comes around to the United States, perhaps a tribute to a global economy and marketing efforts but more likely because all governments like to have toys available to keep the people in line. Unarmed surveillance drones are now used extensively along the Mexican and Canadian borders. Many in Congress would like to see them used more by police forces and the federal security agencies all over the country, as reflected in a bill that passed in February authorizing their deployment nationwide.
The argument being made by the authorities is the old saw that the police need more resources to protect the law-abiding public from criminals and terrorists. Technology, including drones, is admittedly a force multiplier in that it enables a policeman to sit at his desk in headquarters and watch what you are doing in your backyard. Multiply that times 10 and the same cop can observe a whole bunch of people simultaneously. Couple that with the increased use of GPS transmitters that can be attached to vehicles, which are being widely used, and the police can keep tabs on you while you are at home and also know when and where you have been in your car 24/7. And, of course, they can monitor your phone and record what you are viewing and writing on the Internet.
Twenty states already have 64 functioning drone sites for police use, and more than 300 law enforcement agencies are now licensed to operate the vehicles. Many in Congress want to see the police have maximum latitude to operate freely. And it is only a matter of time before the domestic drones will be armed because the same law-and-order argument applies: that drones that can take effective action against criminals enable the police to do their job better. One county in Texas that is using drones is already discussing arming them with tasers, tear gas, and rubber bullets, arguing “those are things that law enforcement utilizes day in and day out, and in certain situations it might be advantageous to have this type of system.”
There has admittedly been some pushback in Congress, from the public, and in the media against a free-fire zone for drones that would extend all over the United States. The Fourth Amendment, which forbids unreasonable searches or searches without a warrant based on probable cause, would appear to restrict the government’s right to surveil a citizen. Sen. Rand Paul has introduced legislation that would make such surveillance illegal without a warrant. Unfortunately, the legislation, which has still not been approved, accepts the principle that drones should be legal but regulated. And it has some major loopholes that can be exploited by the government. Per the bill, drones can be used to surveil borders, can be used to prevent “imminent danger to life,” and can be deployed if there is a high risk of a terrorist attack. This formulation unfortunately authorizes de facto the use of lethal force by drones while permitting police officers to interpret and improvise on the rules. How far a border extends is, of course, a judgment call, and the use of drones in “imminent danger” or terrorist situations allows the authorities to err on the side of caution, deploying drones in many unrelated situations with little regard for limitations imposed by a faraway and largely uninterested Congress.
If drones are essential for keeping the nation’s borders secure, most Americans will be supportive of their deployment. But there should be specific legislation authorizing that use with a careful definition of a border together with strict caveats on any other applications. Drones should not be employed as a law enforcement tool inside the United States because the potential for abuse is so high. If they are used and become accepted as a component of standard police procedure, it is a measure of what kind of nation we have become in the past 11 years. The use of military technologies to enable constant surveillance of the American people to protect them from themselves should be rejected by one and all, Democrat and Republican alike.