Coming to a Neighborhood Near You

I assume most, if not all, readers of are familiar with drones, aka unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs. I’ve written previously about drones in two columns: “Memo to Rep. Ron Paul” and “Commuting to War.” Armed drones have become the weapon of choice for the Obama administration to go after would-be terrorists in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Perhaps the most “famous” U.S. drone strike was the one in September 2011 in Yemen that killed U.S.-born radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, the leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula who was linked to underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab

Clearly, the Obama administration is enamored of using drones to kill suspected terrorists. But since civilians have also been killed by drone strikes (one of the deadliest was in March 2011 when 40 were killed, many believed to be attending a tribal meeting), not surprisingly, the Pakistanis aren’t so much

Would-be terrorists in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, however, aren’t the only people who need to worry about drones. Our neighbors south of the border (the ones trying to sneak into the country in the dead of night) also now have to worry about drones. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) operates unarmed Predator drones along the U.S.-Mexico border. According to the Department of Homeland Security, drone operations have resulted in the apprehension of 4,876 undocumented immigrants and 238 drug smugglers since the program began in 2005 (by comparison, over 300,000 illegal immigrants were caught at the southwestern border in 2011). Ultimately, CBP plans to have as many as 24 drones deployed by 2016 so that the agency can deploy a drone anywhere over the United States within three hours.

Apparently, lawmakers don’t seem too concerned about the domestic use of drones. Michael Kostelnik, the retired Air Force general and former test pilot who runs the Office of Air and Marine for the CBP, says he has never been challenged in Congress about the appropriate use of domestic drones. Kostelnik said, “Instead, the question is: Why can’t we have more of them in my district?” Apparently, the members of the “Drone Caucus” haven’t talked to the Pakistanis.

But we’re talking about unarmed drones, right? For surveillance purposes. Not armed drones to kill people. So what’s the big deal? I mean, if you’re not doing anything wrong, you don’t have anything to worry about. Well, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is worried that the use of drones for domestic surveillance “may implicate Fourth Amendment rights” [.pdf]  (you know, the amendment that says that “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated”).

Fourth Amendment violations, however, may end up being the least of your worries. President Obama recently signed a law requiring the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to “allow police and first responders to fly drones under 4.4 pounds, as long as they keep them under an altitude of 400 feet and meet other requirements.” Already, drone manufacturers and police departments are contemplating the possibility of deploying so-called non-lethal weapons, e.g., tear gas, rubber bullets, on drones for law enforcement use. Given the increased militarization of police departments since 9/11 and drones supporting SWAT operations (the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office north of Houston, Texas, used a federal homeland security grant to buy a $300,000 ShadowHawk drone, citing support SWAT operations as one of its intended missions), it’s not hard to imagine the prospect of armed drones — like those used in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia — in the not-so-distant future.

And it’s not just your local police department flying drones that you need to worry about. The Pentagon wants in on the action. According to Steve Pennington, the U.S. Air Force director of ranges, bases, and airspace, the Department of Defense “doesn’t want a segregated environment. We want a fully integrated environment.” Translation: The military doesn’t want any restrictions placed on its ability to fly UAVs — armed or unarmed — in U.S. airspace (just as combat aircraft aren’t restricted).

The Army is also interested. According to Mary Ottman, deputy product director for unmanned systems airspace integration concepts in the Army’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Project Office, “we have training requirements, we have testing requirements, we have to provide defense support of civilian authorities.”  So even if local police departments don’t have armed drones, it’s certainly not out of the question that the military might make them available for law enforcement under certain circumstances — like, say, an operation against suspected terrorists. And let’s not forget that this administration believes it has the right to target U.S. citizens it says are terrorists. 

If the military and local law enforcement are going to be in on the drone action, what about federal law enforcement? CBP is already flying drones (albeit unarmed). Certainly, the likes of the FBI and the DEA won’t want to miss out on flying missions on a video screen with a joystick.

Of course, we are to believe that the government will be wise and prudent in the use of drones domestically. We are also to believe that the extraordinary power granted the president in the recently signed National Defense Authorization Act [.pdf] — namely the ability of the military to indefinitely detain an American citizen, even in the United States, without charging them — will not be abused (although he signed the bill into law, President Obama claims to have “serious reservations” about this provision). But even if we’re willing to believe that this president won’t exercise this provision, what’s to stop any future president?

Unfortunately, drones are likely to be accepted by a society that has grown too accustomed to a surveillance state as “normal” — particularly post-9/11 — without regard for the Constitution. And who can blame them with television shows like NCIS: LA (and I’ll admit that I watch and like the show as entertainment — I’m a fan of LL Cool J) that portray all that surveillance capability as a good thing used by the good guys to catch bad guys, including terrorists. After all, that’s what’s important, right? And how can you not swoon over drones in this high-tech U.S. Air Force recruiting commercial? Drones are cool, and they’re coming to a neighborhood near you. But by the time we figure out they’re a danger to our freedoms and way of life, it will probably be too late.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.