For nearly four years, President Obama refused to admit a foreign-policy “secret” that was widely known here and throughout the world — namely, that the White House, Pentagon and CIA are engaged in ethically questionable and rapidly escalating drone warfare that’s killing innocent civilians as well as enemy soldiers in Afghanistan, Yemen and elsewhere. But by nominating John Brennan — the architect of this high-tech kill policy — to head the CIA, the president has let the drone out of the bag.
In the past few days, both Brennan and the policy have been getting a grilling from members of both parties on Capitol Hill, with lots of media also questioning the use of unmanned, remote-controlled aircraft to strike people with rockets launched by technicians viewing computer screens and wielding joysticks from bunkers on air bases back here in the U.S.A.
As Congress, the media and the public ponder the merits of that, however, how about noticing another deeply troubling policy secret looming ever larger on our horizon: the domestic deployment of drones. From Homeland Security officials and the FBI to your state police and county sheriff, these inherently invasive “unmanned aerial vehicles” are being spread across our Land of the Free — and aimed at us.
Shouldn’t we get answers to a few basic questions before authorities swarm these “Orwellian gnats” into our skies? For example, what’s the cost of this (in liberty and lucre), what’s the purpose, and what are the rules to prevent abuses?
Cheap, small, noiseless and practically invisible, drones take snooping to a whole new level. Equipped with super-high-powered lenses, infrared and ultraviolet imaging, radar that can see through walls, video analytics and “swarm” technologies that use a group of drones that operate in concert to allow surveillers to watch an entire city, these devices are made to be intrusive. And, of course, they can be “weaponized” to let police agents advance from intrusion to repression.
In other words, we are on a fast track to becoming a society under routine, pervasive surveillance. As the ACLU put it in an excellent December, 2011 report on the UAV threat, such a development “would profoundly change the character of public life in the United States.”
It’s worth adding that public authorities are not the only ones getting UAVs. Corporations have a keen interest in their potential for surreptitious monitoring of environmentalists, union leaders, protesters and competitors. Plus, those being watched might well want to keep track of those who are tracking them. Divorce lawyers, private investigators, political operatives and others who snoop for a living will surely find drones attractive. Individuals — from hobbyists to survivalists — are already building their own. And won’t criminals get them, too?