Who are "they?" Meet AUVSI, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. When this association's spokespeople are interviewed, media outlets (from Fox to NPR) invariably identify AUVSI with the benign phrase, "an industry trade group." But what it trades in is raw political power. It's the lobbying front for drone makers, led by the likes of Boeing, General Atomics, General Dynamics, Honeywell, L-3 Communications, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, Saab Group, SAIC, and many others. You'll recognize these giants as the A-team of the military-industrial complex, and they're now licking their chops at the enormous profiteering potential of the drone-industrial complex.
AUVSI is tighter than the bark on a tree with another very muscular group:The House Unmanned Systems Caucus (aka the Congressional Drone Caucus). Some 60 members strong, it's ramrodded by Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, an industry trusty from Santa Clarita, California, who also happens to chair the colossally powerful Armed Services Committee. The caucus is blunt about its bias and purpose: To "actively support further development and acquisition of more [drone] systems;" to "acknowledge the overwhelming value of these systems;" to "recognize the urgent need to rapidly develop and deploy more [UAV's];" and to support federal "budgets that promote a larger, more robust national security unmanned system capability."
Now, guess who is the top recipient of campaign bucks from drone makers? Of course, Buck! He pocketed $833,650 in drone cash for his last two campaigns. The caucus as a whole was blessed with some $8 million in drone donations over the past four years -- 77 percent going to its GOP members.
In return, Buck and the Boys (okay, eight female reps are also in the caucus) were the stalwarts behind a special provision in the "FAA Modernization and Reform Act" signed by Obama last year on Feb. 14. Yes, Valentine's Day. Prior to this law, the Federal Aviation Administration, which must approve any license for putting a drone into US airspace, had been proceeding cautiously. Agency officials worry (as do airline pilots) that these unregulated, pilotless gnats won't be seen and can't be avoided by planes loaded with people.
The little valentine that AUVSI's members got from the "reform" law was a direct order to the FAA to speed up its approval of drone licenses, commanding the agency to allow unmanned aircraft to enter "safely" into our skies by the arbitrary date of September 15, 2015. Smaller drones (under 55 pounds) are to be authorized this year.
Who wrote this provision? Not Ol' Buck or the committee, but lobbyists for the drone makers! Lee Fang, an intrepid, dig-it-out investigative journalist, recently unearthed a PowerPoint presentation by AUVSI lobbyists to their clients in which they gloated that "the only changes made to the [drone] section of the House FAA bill were made at the request of AUVSI. Our suggestions were often taken word-for-word."
The smell of gold is in the air, and the rush is on. Governors, mayors, potential suppliers, economic development officials, and universities (from Carnegie Mellon to Central Oregon Community College) are being enticed to sniff the financial possibilities of limitless federal money and being rallied into the spreading drone complex. This boom, exclaimed AUVSI's president in a national media blast, "will create jobs and boost local economies across the country." (Oddly, he cited a "study" by his group estimating that the drone economy would produce 23,000 new jobs by 2025. Hello -- that's less than 2,000 a year! Lawn mowing is a better job creator than that.)
Joining the boosterism last June was the US Senate Armed Services Committee. In a report, it took a whip to the Pentagon, FAA, and NASA, demanding that drone deployment be "expedited" and given "the ability to operate freely and routinely" in our national airspace.
The goal of the pushers is to have a startling 30,000 of these pilotless contrivances zipping through the air by 2020. Holy moly! Our nation's entire commercial fleet of passenger and cargo planes numbers only about 7,000. And lest you think that 30,000 drones is an industry fantasy, a map compiled from military records discloses that as of last June the Pentagon alone already had 64 drone bases throughout our country, with another 22 bases planned. The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 prohibits the military from operating on American soil, but there it is. What are they doing? We don't know. But it's time to ask.
In addition, the Department of Homeland Security signed a $443 million contract with General Atomics last November to buy more drones for its border patrols division, and it also said it intends to more than double its overall fleet (though agency plans for drone use beyond the border are unspecified). This rapid expansion is being pushed by DHS officials despite a finding last year by the department's own inspector general that drones are ineffective for border security and that DHS's drone program is a waste of money and lacks oversight.
Besides its own UAV infatuation, DHS is leading the feds' effort to get government agencies at all levels to drone-ify their missions. The super-secret agency runs a "lending" program that disperses its UAV's to the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, and state and local police for undisclosed law enforcement actions. It also has a grant program to "facilitate and accelerate" drone use by giving local police the cash to buy their own (one UAV manufacturer, Vanguard Defense Industries, even advertises on its website that any police department wanting one of these babies should go to DHS for a drone grant). Again, DHS makes no disclosure of these disbursements or the purpose of the purchases, but watchdog groups have uncovered police departments in Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Texas, Utah, and Washington State flying drones.Pushback
The insidious intention of security agents is to make these seeing-eye drones so ubiquitous that they are accepted by you and me as normal. But there's nothing normal about the American people meekly living in a watched society, perpetually monitored by flying cameras that also are weaponized with tasers, tear gas, rubber bullets, and what-have-you (including real bullets and explosives). Vanguard's CEO marveled at the possibilities: "You have a stun baton where you can actually engage somebody at altitude with the aircraft."
As constitutional lawyer and writer Glenn Greenwald warns: "The potential for abuse is vast." He characterized life in DroneAmerica: "The escalation in surveillance they ensure is substantial, and the effect they have on the culture of personal privacy -- having the state employ hovering, high-tech, stealth video cameras that invade homes and other private spaces -- is simply creepy."
The good news is that the industry and its cohorts have been recently stunned by a remarkable left-right counterpunch. They are not only being confronted by such progressive opponents of their liberty-busting gambit as the ACLU, CodePink, and Rep. Ed Markey in the US House -- but also a determined bunch of Republican privacy defenders in Congress and the media, including Sen. Rand Paul, "Morning Joe" Scarborough on MSNBC, Bloomberg columnist Ramesh Ponnuru, and even far-right Fox commentator Charles Krauthammer, who says: "I don't want restrictions [on drones] -- I want a ban."
Already, this surprising coalition has succeeded in delaying FAA approval of the six US test sites required for putting UAV's in the air by 2015. In a letter to the Buckster (Rep. McKeon) last November, FAA's acting director rightly declared that "the use of [drones] also raises privacy issues," so the agency intends to pause in order for all parties "to appropriately address privacy concerns."
Naturally, AUVSI exploded in righteous indignation at such an affront to its rush-rush profiteering timetable. "The FAA is not a privacy organization," sputtered the front group's top lobbyist, and eight industry bigwigs fired off a letter to the acting administrator, essentially saying: "Ignore privacy!"