Drones Over America

Even as the U.S. government is showing its willingness to use drones to execute rebellious Americans, the Federal Aviation Administration is issuing permits for drones in the United States.






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Publication: The New American
Author: Scaliger, Charles
Date published: June 4, 2012

On the morning of September 30, 201 1, a group of travelers in a remote comer of northern Yemen stopped their vehicle to eat breakfast. Among ihem was American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, a Muslim cleric known to be a supporter of al-Qaeda. and Samir Khan, a Saudi-born Pakistani American who was the editor of al-Qaeda's English- language web magazine Inspire. As they breakfasted, they spotted a strange aircraft high in the sky, with telltale inverted stabilizer and rear-mounted propeller; an American Predator drone.

Guessing they were being targeted, the men leaped intu their car and sped away, apparently hoping Io outrun the pursuing aircraft. But they had no chance of outstripping the two Hellfirc missiles fired at them by the drone they had spotted and its unseen companion. The vehicle and ils occupants were blown to hits, with the two American citizens among the dead. The strike had been carried out by the United States' Joint Special Operations Command, under the direction of the CIA.

Two weeks later al-Awlaki's American-born son Abdulrahman. who had gone to look for his father, was killed in the company of a number of suspected alQaeda operatives by another drone strike. In this instance, the U.S. government expressed a measure of regret for the death of an innocent teenage boy, stating that he had been "in the wrong place at the wrong time."

For his part, al-Awlaki was less than a sympathetic figure. With his perfect command of English, he was a valuable tool for al-Qaeda propaganda, having produced instructional manuals and numerous online lectures on how to carry out jihad. But he had been convicted of no crime; he had merely been deemed an enemy of the American regime and had been targeted forextrajudiciiil assassination by President O bam a.

The killings of al-Awlaki and Khan raised concerns that the American government was now willing Io murder its own citizens under the cover of the War un Terrorism. But of equal concern is the lethality and efficiency of unmanned military drones like the Predator, which have proven a devastating tool of both surveillance and assassination in Afghanistan. Yemen, and other fronts in the war - and which are now being vetted for use in American skies against American citizens.

The development of reconnaissance drones dates back to the early 1 98Os, when the CIA first began working on the concept. The first unmanned reconnaissance drones deployed in combat saw service over Bosnia in the mid- 1990s. By then, the aircraft were equipped with specially designed engines that made very little noise, and had acquired the nickname "Predator."

With the outbreak of war in Afghanistan weeks after 9/1 1, the U.S. military began lo utili/e Predators more and more for carrying out tactical strikes, in addition to mere surveillance. By the end of the last decade, the most advanced Predator model, the MQ-9 Reaper, was carrying out many of the functions of traditional ground attack military planes, but without putting American pilots in harm's way. Boasting a 66-foot wingspan and a maximum payload of 3,8UO pounds, the Reaper is able deliver a variety of military payloads. including Hellfire missiles and laser-guided bombs. Able to cruise at 50.000 feet at 300 miles per hour, the MQ-9 is as formidable a weapon as any conventional missile or aircraft in the American arsenal.

Drones' Utility

The military utility of unmanned drones is beyond dispute - so much so that the military has begun replacing certain manned units with fleets of drones. In 2008. for example, the New York Air National Guard I74ih Fighter Wing moved to replace piloted F-16s with MQ-9 Reapers. By early 201 1 , the Air Force was training more pilots to operate unmanned drones than for any other weapons system.

But unmanned drones have not been used exclusively by the U.S. military. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection, part of the Department of Homeland Security, operates nine MQ-9s equipped with stateof-the-art surveillance systems. Patrolling portions of both theU.S./MexicoandU.S./ Canada borders, these aircraft have managed to spot drug-smuggling operations and other iliegal cross-border activities.

The advent of unmanned drones would be nothing more than the latest high-tech breakthrough in military technology, were it not for a recent, far more troubling development: With the Department of Homeland Security leading the charge, the press is now on to authorize and even encourage the use of unmanned drones in domestic airspace, by every level of government and law enforcement, from Homeland Security to the local police. Domestic drones could certainly enhance search and rescue operations, as many drone proponents in law enforcement are arguing. But they could - and in all likelihood would - also be used for far less benign purposes, such as drawing a suffocating cloak of perpetual aerial surveillance over American neighborhoods and even allowing for the efficient, anonymous snuffing-out of designated public enemies, like suspected terrorists. If such actions are found to be legal against U.S. citizens abroad, what is to prevent them from being resorted to at home?

In February, Congress passed the FAA Reauthorization Act, which directed the FAA to develop by the end of this year a more streamlined protocol for issuing certificates authorizing the use of drones in American airspace. The obvious objective of the legislation is to encourage the acquisition and deployment of drones by law enforcement who might otherwise be discouraged by excessive red tape.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization dedicated to protecting privacy in a high-tech world, has taken the lead in exposing the push to fi 1 1 America's skies with drones. In April of 201 1, the EFF filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Department of Transportation, demanding to know what entities had applied for FAA certificates to operate drones. After a year of heel-dragging, the FAA finally released in April two lists detailing applicants for Certificates of Authorizations (COAs). issued to public entities wanting to use drones, and for Special Airworthiness Certificates (SACs) issued to private manufacturers needing permission io test new drone models. While the lists released by the DOA do not indicate the number or types of drones applicants intend to use, they do furnish a revealing first look at the diversity of organizations that deem drone use critical to their operations.

Go Fly With Me

It comes as no surprise that various federal agencies, from the Department of Homeland Security and the Air Force to the Department of Energy and the U.S. Forest Service, have requested COAs. But F.FF was surprised to discover that a number of prominent universities and colleges were on the list. Cornell, Georgia Tech, Kansas State, Mississippi State, Texas A&M, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Michigan, the University of Ari7ona, the University of Connecticut, the University of Florida, the University of Colorado, the University of North Dakota, the University of Alaska- Anchorage, and Utah State University all appear, in addition to a numher of less-recogni/able schools like New Mexico Tech. Nicholis State University, and Eastern Gateway Community College. Many loca! police forces also made the list, including Houston, Ogden (Utah), Herington (Kansas), and Seattle. Other law-enforcement entities desiring COAs include the Montgomery County (Maryland) Sheriff's office, the Orange County (Texas) Sheriff's office, and. unsurprisingly, the FBI.

In a meeting with EFF representatives on April 19, the FAA disclosed that it had issued between 700 and 750 total certificates of au mori ¿at ion since it first began approving drone use in 2006, Approximately 300 of those certificates are still active, suggesting that, inasmuch as the lisi released contains only about 60 total entries, that many applicants have secured multiple certificates. One FAA official told the EFF thai he believed the University of Colorado alone had received as many as 100 COAs over the last six years.

The proliferation of drones in federal, siate, local, and university law enforcement poses serious privacy issues, as Congressmen Edward Markey and Joe Barton pointed out in an April 1 9 letter to Michael Huerta, acting director of the FAA. "Many drones are designed to carry surveillance equipment," the letter noted, "including video cameras, infrared thermal imagers, radar, and wireless network "snifters." The surveillance power of drones is amplified when the information from onboard sensors is used in conjunction with facial recognition, behavior analysis, license plate recognition, or any other system that can identify and track individuals as they go about their daily lives." The letter went on to request more detailed information about the numbers and types of drones to be used by the applicants on the newly publicized lists, and about any privacy safeguards that have been erected to prevent the abuse of such powerful and potentially intrusive new technology.

Militarized America

The advantages of unmanned drones over manned aircraft for law enforcement are apparent enough: A law-enforcement agency could easily afford to field an entire fleet of small drones, greatly enhancing the ability of law-enforcement personnel to keep tabs on traffic, public disturbances, and even fleeing suspects. But the potential for abuse is just as acute: a fleet of drones could as easily surveill private spaces like backyards and farmlands as it could congested intersections or rush-hour traffic on public highways. In Afghanistan, drones monitor private gatherings and compounds, looking for evidenceofterroristconfabs.lt is not hard to imagine pretexts - I ike monitoring potential gang or drug trafficking activities from the air - for which unlimited surveillance could be authori/cd.

The real issue - the preservation of a right to privacy - is no! confined to the impending proliferation of unmanned drones. Americans have, in the course of a single generation, become accustomed to a range of privacy -compromis in g surveillance activities, including ubiquitous cameras watching traffic lights, freeways, and most other public places, and, of course, recent changes in airport and other public transportation security that increasingly leave Americans subject to random searches, interrogations, and even arrest. In such a climate of state paranoia, the prospect of drones watching our every move is but the latest foreseeable development.

Another critical concern is the use of military drones in support of domestic police actions. In June of 201 1, Kelly Janke, the Sheriff of Nelson County in eastern North Dakota, called in a Predator drone from the Grand Forks Air Force Base to assist in an operation against a family embroiled in a dispute over stray cows. Circling two miles overhead, the drone located the three suspects, who had confronted law enforcement the previous day, and. thanks to ultrapowerful sensors under ils nose, was able to determine mat none of the men was armed. Law enforcement rushed in and arrested the three men without bloodshed.

The incident was the first arrest of American civilians with the help of a Predator, but it was hardly the last. Since then. Predators from Grand Forks Air Force Base were used in support of local police for surveillance at !east two do/en times in 201 1 alone, according to a December 201 1 report in the Los Angeles Times, as well as an indeterminate number of additional instances by the FBI and DEA. "We don't use [drones] on every call out," BUl Macki, head of the Grand Forks police SWAT team, told the Times. "If we have something in lown like an apartment complex, we don't call them."

And military drones are being used elsewhere for civilian law enforcement. According to Michael C. Koslelnik. a rciired Air Force general in charge of the drone fleet, military Predators are now used "in many areas around the country, not only for federal operators, but also for state and local law enforcement and emergency responders in times of crisis."

The use of the military for domestic law enforcement has been prohibited since Reconstruction by the Posse Conutatus Act, yet the use of military assets like drones and satellites to keep tabs on Americans is very much in favor in many law-enforcement circles. And since courts have ruled for decades that aerial surveillance does not constitute a violation of privacy, it would appear that those apprehensive of the proliferation of drones face an uphill legal struggle to impose reasonable limits on their use. As Ryan Calo, director for privacy and robotics at the Slanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society, told the Los Angeles Times. "Any time you have a tool like that in the hands of law enforcement that makes it easier to do surveillance, they win do more of it. This could be a time when people are uncomfortable, and they want to place limits on that technology. It could make us question the doctrine that you do not have privacy in public."

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