Most Americans don’t look up unless the “Goodyear Blimp” is hovering overhead, storm clouds are gathering on the horizon or an actor says on the radio that the Martians have landed. Until the current conflicts in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen broke out, and the so-called drone war against alleged terrorists was embarked on, most Americans, like the rest of the world, knew little or nothing about drones – and cared less.
If anyone bothered to make inquiries about drones, those unmanned, remotely controlled aircraft usually used for reconnaissance because nobody will get killed if they are shot at, they were told that they were making the world safer for democracy. More democracy is better for everyone, and therefore protecting it should be supported, if we accept the logic of the U.S. Constitution – which most of the world’s population does, this being their democratic will.
But now we are seeing another side to the use of drones – a side no one official will ever tell you about. As Molly Mulshine of Infowars.com has said, “Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird, it’s a plane — no it’s a Predator drone coming to get you.” Even this apocalyptic prediction is optimistic. Most people will never see the drones flying over them right now – but if you are an American, they must statistically be there, nonetheless.
According to the Congressional Research Service, The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) predicts that 30,000 drones will fill that nation’s skies in less than 20 years. This has not happened purely as a result of the cut and thrust of the marketplace. Congress has played a large role in this expansion.
In February 2012 Congress enacted the FAA Modernization and Reform Act (P.L. 112-95), which obligated the FAA to accelerate the integration of unmanned aircraft into the national airspace system by 2015. What were once military spy planes, used in conflict zones or sensitive border areas, are now to become a permanent feature of everyday civilian life in the US.
The US government does not officially believe that its own citizens, the people who elected it, are a threat to democracy. So why is this happening?
Drones, because of their design, multiplicity of sizes and ability to operate at altitudes beyond the range of human sight can operate virtually undetected in both urban and rural environments. They give the US government the ability to spy on Americans and others without their knowledge, both virtually and with electronic devices. As well as being undetectable they are also unaccountable: as there is no one inside it is impossible to know for sure who is controlling a drone, for what purpose, and where the information obtained by it has gone.
The US government is well known for its repeated violations of the human rights it claims to be the greatest defender of. Google, for example, the words “napalm” and “Guantanamo Bay” and see what you get. Privacy is also a human right, according to the Universal Declaration the US has signed. Unsurprisingly however in every country where government violations of privacy have been brought before the courts, the government concerned has brought in US consultants to devise their violation mechanisms.
So were drones designed for the purposes they have been used for so far – remote surveillance of conflict regions for use in operational support and peacekeeping? Or were they, all along, expected to perform another function, which the many wars around the world have “laundered” into a democracy protection one? If they suddenly have a new utility, when was this discovered and why was it not discovered before?
These are questions which might well be asked by Rodney Brossart, a North Dakota cattle rancher. He is about to enter the record books as the first US citizen to be arrested and convicted with help of a drone. Six cows wandered onto Brossart’s property near Grand Forks, North Dakota and, when he refused to return them to his neighbor a SWAT team was called in, along with a predator drone which provided overhead intelligence.
Brossart, and his three sons who are not responsible for his actions, were quickly located and arrested. The owner of the cattle he refused to return may well have had a genuine case. Whether the other residents of North Dakota, who pay for these drones out of their tax dollars, are happy with being targeted by them unaccountably for purposes they have never been told about may be another matter.
Any criticism of US actions, particularly US military actions, is regarded in some quarters as anti-American. If you are an American citizen you pledge to uphold the US Constitution. The Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution states 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”.
So who is anti-American: those who complain about the use of drones or those who use them? Remember, the US authorities themselves do not dispute that these planes are designed to spy on people and things. Is the fact that a person lives in the USA ‘reasonable grounds’ for violating their constitutionally-protected privacy?
There are also other constitutional involved. These include States Rights, as individual states have no control over the spying process and different states have different laws about surveillance, which are being trampled over. The courts are also being circumvented because the same Fourth Amendment requires the authorities to obtain a search warrant before invading their homes or property, either in person or by undetectable spying devices.
Legal scholars and human rights activists agree that the Fourth Amendment either can, or already does, apply to drones flying overhead. In the United States a tape recording made by a third party, without a search warrant, cannot be used as evidence by either party in a court of law. This is because this act is in itself a violation of privacy, even if the aggrieved party is using it to defend themselves from wrongful accusation.
If an entirely new legal system has been invented which permits the use of drones to spy on US citizens, and material taken from their activities to be used in evidence, those same US citizens have a right to be informed. If you think they might have been, at some point, ask the Justice Department for the date on which this was done.
The real reason there is so much secrecy about US domestic drone use is that we have already seen what these remote-controlled devices can actually do. The drones which Congress is introducing into America’s skies are the same ones which can be, and are, armed – and at various stages of killing people in various countries, right now, while you are reading this article.
“Democracy Now” a web-based human rights portal, wrote in 2011 whilst introducing a new report by a team of British and Pakistani journalists that a U.S. drone strike occurs every four days in Pakistan. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan have killed as many as 775 civilians, including 168 children, since 2004.
The same report also challenges a recent claim by President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, that “There hasn’t been a single collateral death [in the past year] because of the exceptional proficiency and precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop.” According to the Bureau’s researchers, at least 45 civilians were killed in 10 U.S. attacks during the last year.
The Obama administration continues to defend the drone killing campaign as “being an effective tool against Al-Qaeda-linked militants”. He argues that U.S. drone strikes are focused only on those “people” who are on a list of active “terrorists”.
Unfortunately we have seen two trends when it comes to such lists. One, people from all walks of life and nationalities can end up on them, even statesman who once thought the US was their friend. Two, US citizens have also been included – without their knowledge – and are therefore under threat of such an anti-terror strike in their own homes, in the middle of crowded American cities, at any time.
Last year, the Washington Post reported that President Obama had granted a CIA request to launch drone attacks even when it does not know the identities of those who will be killed by them. This amounts to a license to kill, as ordered by a former Constitutional Law professor – to commit the wholesale slaughter of innocent civilians – anyone could be the terrorist you are seeking if you don’t know who that is. More probably, they will be declared to be so afterwards, as there is no actual criterion other than someone’s say-so for deciding who is and who is not a terrorist.
Is America ready for this within its own borders? Just imagine what use Senator Joseph McCarthy or Ku Klux Klan-linked former state governors would have made of such technology. If you think that era has gone, look at the language used by both sides in the current gun control debate.
Killing and Spying by Remote Control is nothing new and drone manufacture is a major US industry. Approximately 50 US companies, universities, and government organizations are developing and producing some 155 unmanned aircraft designs. According to one market research firm, approximately 70% of the global market share of unmanned aircraft systems is accounted for by the United States.
This industry would not exist without demand. As discussed during a conference held in Washington DC back in April 2012, the U.S. military and the CIA now routinely use drones to launch missiles against human targets in countries with which the United States is not at war, including Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. It was stated there, at the heart of the defense industry, that at least 3,000 people, including hundreds of noncombatants and even American citizens, have been killed in covert missions.
The Federal Aviation Administration has consistently failed to release specific and detailed information on who is authorized to fly drones within US borders. This December, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) purchased its ninth drone. It freely admits that most of these are not used for customs purposes but hired out to local law enforcement agencies.
US law enforcers are armed. But you can question a police officer or report their behavior. Undetectable killing machines, with a track record of slaughtering civilians, are now being released into the skies of the USA for use against its citizens, with no one knowing who controls them, what they can do and why they are doing it.
There is a technical terms generally applied to actions of this sort. You’ve heard it. It’s called “terrorism”.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.