Slinging Stones at the Drone Goliath

Looking around at the standing room only crowd at the Global Drone Summit on Saturday, one wondered if all of these people knew exactly what they’re up against.


The multi-billion dollar drone industry fueled, in part, by American contracting goliaths like Northrop Grumman, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and General Atomics, continues to advance domestic drone sales (despite budget cuts), with more exports than ever to dozens of countries overseas. Last year at this time, investment writers were calling the commercial market for drone sales "the next blockbuster," the "most dynamic growth sector of the world aerospace market this decade," with a projected $89 billion spent by 2020, according to one market analysis.

The US has only one rival in this arena – Israel – which in fact is the largest exporter of drones and associated technology on the planet – some 40 percent of the total market and 4.6 billion in sales from 2005 to 2012, according to the most available figures.

On the domestic front, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) made its biggest move yet towards regulating and normalizing the domestic use of drones. Two weeks ago, it released its "roadmap" for integrating domestic drones into US airspace over the next five years. "In the end," writes Jason Paur at Wired, "there would be a set of rules and regulations that would certify both pilots and aircraft in a similar manner that is done today with manned aircraft, and allow the widespread integration of UAS (Unnamed Aircraft Systems) into the national airspace."

Paur points out that current drone use on the domestic front is allowed now only on a "case by case" basis under the Department of Transportation’s purview. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t tons of local, state and federal entities – including the border patrol – using drones for surveillance and aerial photography already.

According to the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) operates ten drones in the United States, and by 2016, the agency plans to operate twenty. A shudder was felt among the civil liberties community in August when a leaked 2010 Department of Homeland Security report plainly stated that the agency was considering "payload upgrades" on drones along the border that would include non-lethal weapons designed to "immobilize TOIs (targets of interest)." The report did not specify just what kind of "non-lethal weapons" that DHS, which overseas CBP, had in mind.

Meanwhile, the Electronic Frontier Foundation was tired of waiting for the DOT (which oversees the FAA) to share its information regarding how many permissions the agency has granted over the year, and to whom. It filed a lawsuit and has been able to shed light on the situation. And what a sight to see: EFF created a map last year (below) to show just how widespread domestic drone use has metastasized, according to the authorizations we know about so far.


The numbers, of course, are always elusive. According to The Los Angeles Times last February, the FAA at that point had granted 1,428 permits to domestic drone operators, including federal agencies, local police departments, universities and state departments of transportation. EFF is trying to piece together all of the authorizations, but it’s complicated: EFF has recently been reporting on the CBP’s drone "loans" to other agencies. In fact, according to documents EFF received through a Freedom of Information Act request, we know CBP has flown at least 500 flights on behalf of other agencies over a three year period. Probably not surprisingly, the beneficiaries include "several branches of US military," state police, county sheriff departments and several drug interdiction programs.

Meanwhile, the FBI has started using drones in surveillance operations, too. According to a Justice Department Inspector General’s Office report released in September, other agencies at the DOJ have been testing UAS and even have plans to use them, soon, "to support their mission," including the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). The report adds that the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and U.S Marshal’s Service have also been testing but don’t have plans to use drones operationally (so far). The DEA, specifically, wants to transfer its UAS "to another federal agency." Perhaps that agency is the CBP, which, as we just mentioned, has been doing the dirty work for everyone else, including the US Marshals Service.

A convenient way to cloak an agency’s surveillance activity, it would seem.

Two major points made by IG review: one, DOJ has sloppy record when it comes to keeping track of who it’s giving local law enforcement grants to, particularly through the Community Policing (COPS) program, and two, it still doesn’t have DOJ-wide, uniform guidelines in place to address privacy and legal concerns of drone use. Seeing that, besides the military, the use of UAS by domestic law enforcement is the root of most Americans’ concern about their proliferation, one would think that this might have been addressed already. But alas, the drones are flying – and being used in domestic criminal investigations – untested legally and constitutionally.

"If this idea," that drones would take the place helicopters and gumshoes to track, spy on, and perhaps someday, engage in routine border enforcement with "non-lethal" weapons, "had been proposed a generation ago … it would have been condemned" as immoral, illegal and unacceptable, declared antiwar and civil liberties activist David Swanson, who spoke at Saturday’s drone summit.

Perhaps so, but as many speakers at the event acknowledged, the drone wars overseas and their proliferation at home are outpacing the opposition’s ability to combat the very idea that we need robotic spy and killing machines in an advanced society – that they are "precise" and "smart" and effective. In reality, it is a race against time.

Packed house at Drone Summit. Credit: CODEPINK/Facebook
Packed house at Drone Summit. Credit: CODEPINK/Facebook

Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CODEPINK, which sponsored the summit for the second year (the first was in May 2012, which wrote about, here), addressed this issue in her opening remarks. "Every time I look in the news I see more and more countries buying drones," (defense technology expert Peter Singer says as many as 87 countries are now UAS consumers, 26 of them having purchased the MQ-1 Predator or a model of equivalent size). "Because this is big business."

"You can be rest assured there are many countries in the process of weaponizing their drones," she added. The Washington Times quoting "defense industry and other sources," reported this month that some "10 to 15 nations are thought to be working hard on doing just that, and China and Iran are among those with the most advanced programs."

Those are two nations with which the US is already engaging in two separate Cold Wars of a sort, so we’re not surprised when "defense sources" are eager to ramp up their perceived threats. But it’s also no surprise to hear those governments are working to match the technologies already being used (or have been used) to advance US military operations in numerous other countries today (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Somalia, Iraq).

Strikes by US, Israeli and British-operated drones have also occurred in the Sudan, Philippines, Gaza, Egypt, Libya, and Mali – (though not all have been officially confirmed or acknowledged). "That, unfortunately is going to be the tip of the iceberg unless we raise our voices and challenge the proliferation of drones," said Chris Cole, founder of Drone Wars UK, who also spoke on Saturday.

He said, "Britain has been hooked on the drone wars" since it began using armed drones in Iraq in 2004, and "is in the process of doubling its fleet despite the supposed imminent withdrawal from Afghanistan."

According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the Brits were responsible for 40 percent of armed drone attacks in Afghanistan in 2011, and over a quarter of the strikes in 2012. The UK also flew armed drones in Libya.

"As a nation we spend already, $3.5 billion building and developing drones," despite cuts in social services and other non-military programs in Britain, he said.

Much of the discussion Saturday was dedicated to the moral and ethical use of drones. This year, three Yemenis traveled to the US to talk about their personal experiences living with US drone attacks in their country. They will be gathering with CODEPINK activists and others for a congressional briefing today (Rayburn House Office Building, Room 2456, 4 p.m. ET), according to organizers.

There were also three critical, prevailing themes at this year’s summit. One, the use of drones is illegal, immoral, and unaccountable to the public. Secrecy has shrouded the White House ramp-up of armed drone use. While strikes and civilian deaths are reportedly down, officials still do not confirm the breadth of drone attack and have yet to provide coherent justification (constitutionally, legislatively) for secret, targeted killings.

Bud McKeon, chair of the House Armed Services Committee and big beneficiary of drone lobby money, at recent industry event (credit: Unmanned Systems Caucus)
Bud McKeon, chair of the House Armed Services Committee and big beneficiary of drone lobby money, at recent industry event (credit: Unmanned Systems Caucus)

Two, today’s vigorous drone industry – thanks to a serious lobby on Capitol Hill (tens of millions of campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures in 2012-13 alone) and the lucrative nature of the global market – is making drones, armed and otherwise, accessible to a wider consumer base. What fresh Pandora’s hell has the US and its allies opened, when everyone, including would-be terrorists and even state actors with even less scruples and self-control, end up with Predators and Global Hawk knockoff with accompanying missile payloads?

Three, how can activists turn these arguments inward to stop the proliferation by drones in the US? This is proving difficult, considering that proponents have justified drone technology by saying they’ll be put to "good" use like search and rescue missions, or catching escaped convicts. However, Americans approval of drones in general slips when asked about the possibility of using drones to kill terror suspects on domestic soil. Nor do they like the idea of using surveillance drones to conduct routine police activity, which is already happening today. And don’t forget safety: drones can be hacked, and they can crash – there were two incidents in New York and California just in the last week.

So at least there is some opening for opponents. Many of them have already started passing local laws against their use, period.

But again, it’s a race against time, and against a Goliath. Drones are being developed and justified faster than activists can reach audiences to make their case against them. Summits like the one CODEPINK organized last weekend at least keep the mission in focus, highlighting both the global and domestic stakes, which seem to get more pronounced every day.

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Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.