The Specter of Domestic Drones

In recent months, the U.S. policy of drone attacks to kill suspected militants in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen has come under heated criticism. The extrajudicial targeted killings of suspects, including American citizens, is in itself a stark violation of international law. Add to that the fact that President Obama has ordered hundreds of strikes (over five times as many so far as did his predecessor Bush) and the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians (now over a thousand by the most conservative estimates), with drones’ missiles inevitably raining down on funeral gatherings and mosques; the posthumous classification of all military-age male casualties as “militants” for the purposes of PR; and the creepy image of Obama fretting over the biography of each suspect on his “kill list.”

With their courageous acts of civil disobedience at the Air Force and Air National Guard bases that control the drone strikes, Code Pink and other activist groups are sounding the clarion call that these remote-controlled killers commit war crimes. But amid the growing recognition of the brutal effects of armed drones abroad, it’s also time for activists to take a hard look at the brave new world of surveillance drones being used here in the United States.

In February, Congress quietly passed a bill that enables the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to fast-track the “efficient integration” of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) into the national airspace, with nary a cost-benefit analysis or impact study. This came after the December crash of a U.S. drone on the Iranian border, which highlighted both the high crash rates of drones and the windfall of intelligence that the vulnerabilities of U.S. stealth technology could reveal to stated enemies. The bill also lacks mention of privacy risk assessment or protection, to the alarm of civil liberties advocates. Since its passage, a number of citizen groups — the ACLU, Electronic Freedom Foundation, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a congressional caucus led by Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas) — have been calling on Congress to address the “invasive and pervasive surveillance” that it makes inevitable, but to no avail.

Barring passage of stricter regulations, it seems government and private surveillance drones are poised to enter already crowded skies. As it stands, the FAA currently authorizes 20 state and local governments and 24 universities and other entities, including police departments from Utah to Arkansas, to fly airborne surveillance devices. In May, the chief deputy of the Montgomery County, Texas, sheriff’s office told a newspaper that his department plans to deploy rubber bullets and tear gas from its drone, on which he also hopes to mount Tasers and beanbag cannons. (With $300,000 of federal Homeland Security grant funds, his department made headlines when it prepared to become the first police agency in the U.S. to order a drone that could carry weapons.)

In the profligate world of defense contracts, drone research and development are going strong, bringing us ever closer to the Clinton-era Department of Defense’s “Joint Vision 2020,” which imagined the U.S. at the helm of a ring of satellites girding the earth, combining all-seeing vision with deadly force. In March, two drones performed the first successful test of autonomous in-flight refueling at 45,000 feet, and it was revealed that Sandia National Labs and Northrup Grumman have favorably assessed the feasibility of a nuclear-powered drone. Two months later, NATO capped off its summit by signing a $1.7 billion deal with Northrup Grumman for its Global Hawk UAVs to be integrated into NATO’s “Allied Ground Surveillance” system. On June 1, a liquid hydrogen–fueled Boeing spy drone called “Phantom Eye,” designed to stay aloft for four or more days at a time, completed a successful flight.

It’s not news that the U.S. spends vast sums on shiny new toys for the military while its municipal budgets are strapped. What’s startling is that both trends may well yield more drones. While critics of runaway military spending, waste, and fraud can credibly point to the unwieldy cost of military drones — in March, the Air Force assessed the cost of an unexplained August 2011 drone crash in Afghanistan to be $72.8 million — the future of domestic surveillance drones, in contrast, appears shockingly inexpensive.

“The drones cost $3.36 an hour to operate, which compares to $250 to $600 an hour for a manned aircraft,” a county policeman from Denver told Bloomberg. “Governments that in the past couldn’t afford helicopters can now afford UAVs,” explained the spokesman for a defense-industry consulting firm. Now, for about the cost of a squad car, a local police department can get a drone.

Should city and county governments nationwide wish to look to drone surveillance as the answer to their budget problem and not know where to turn, the federal government is ready to help. In May, the Department of Homeland Security launched its Air-Based Technologies Program, which will “facilitate and accelerate the adoption” of small, unmanned drones by police and other public safety agencies, positioning DHS as the central point of coordination for private aviation technology manufacturers and police and sheriffs departments nationwide. DHS already runs the nation’s largest fleet of domestic surveillance drones: the Customs and Border Protection Agency has used them to monitor U.S. borders for illegal immigration and drugs since 2005, at a cost of more than $250 million to date, with unimpressive results toward its stated intent. Nonetheless, Homeland Security’s drone program will continue to be well-endowed, and by 2016 it will have the ability to deploy a drone anywhere in domestic airspace within three hours’ time.

The image conjured of a militarized, federally-coordinated surveillance state is augured by the preparations now underway for the 2012 London Olympics. London’s security system will include surface-to-air missile systems, supplemented by drones and coordinated with checkpoints, ground-level scanners, biometric ID cards, and license plate and facial-recognition CCTV systems. In Athens, site of the 2004 Olympics, the police evidently intended to keep the surveillance and security systems in place when the games were finished, and it would seem that only the rampant corruption, poor management, and faulty implementation that plagued the system in the first place prevented police from using it to quash protests earlier this year.

Given that the deployment of these surveillance drones is in the works, activists must begin to develop strategies for confronting such a surveillance state, including possibilities for allying or actively collaborating with nontraditional allies across traditional political lines. At one end of the political spectrum, the movement for transparency and oversight is anchored by liberal civil-liberties stalwarts like the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which recently obtained via FOIA request the list of 50 organizations already legally flying drones.

Meanwhile, the topic of domestic drones has recently captured the conservative imagination. In June, when a Twitter user’s misinterpretation of a Fox News story led to a widespread false rumor that the Environmental Protection Agency was using drones to spy on farmers suspected of polluting the water supply, it took only a few days for the story to gain speed, amplified by conservative blogs such as NetRightDaily, then erroneously repeated by Fox News and other outlets; at least four Republican congressmen were demanding answers from the EPA before the story was dispelled.

The fact that such a prospect (true or not) provoked such outrage on the right provides a powerful lesson. Working together across political lines, activists could more powerfully assert the demand for privacy and accountability — and perhaps even take advantage of the existing lax legislation to create DIY robotics to aid in acts of civil disobedience, reporting, or art. While all who are concerned about human rights are surely grateful for activists and reporters focusing on war crimes by U.S. robots of war abroad, don’t let that distract us from organizing and strategizing around the less deadly but more insidious specter of the surveillance state at home that, if left unchecked, will soon be set in motion.

Originally published by Waging Nonviolence.