If you drive west from Marfa, Texas toward El Paso, you'll cross some 200 miles of uniquely beautiful desert valleys and mountains that run astride the Mexican border. It's a serene ride. On a sunny morning last spring, however, as I traversed this stretch, my tranquility was interrupted by something odd that appeared on the far horizon, about 20 miles distant. Coming closer to the object, curiosity turned to chill, for it gradually dawned on me that I was seeing a dark harbinger of our society's future. Hovering in the sky was a technological presence that the Powers That Be are eager to make ubiquitous throughout our country: A drone.
Officially called "Unmanned Aerial Vehicles" (UAV's), some are very large, some tiny, some can fly sideways and backwards, some can operate from eight miles up, some can hang motionless in the sky ("hover and stare" is the industry's spooky term for this capability) -- and all can silently surveill whatever is occurring beneath them for miles around. The particular pilotless aircraft that I saw belonged to the Customs and Border Protection agency, a Homeland Security division that presently has nine clones of this drone technology "watching" for drug smugglers and immigrants crossing illegally into our country from any spot along the 2,000-mile border the US shares with Mexico. CBP agents, sitting at terminals in windowless buildings as far away as North Dakota, direct the pan-optic sweep of these unblinking, computerized eyes in the sky.
Just being under its gaze was eerie. Even though I was not a target of its all-encompassing electronic watch, I still felt queasy, felt an involuntary twinge of intimidation, felt unsettled, and...well, watched. Who wants to live like that?
Most Americans, if they give any thought at all to drones, connect them to remote-controlled rocket attacks by our military and CIA in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and wherever else the executive branch unilaterally chooses to target an individual or group to be spied upon...or assassinated. These killer drones are "piloted" by operators here at home who never leave the ground or personally confront the danger of combat. Safely and secretly ensconced in special, locked-down computer rooms on Air Force bases across the country, their "weapons" are video screens, keystrokes, and joysticks that cause an unmanned aircraft several thousand miles away to fire its missiles at unsuspecting targets.
Much has been written recently about some of the horrors resulting from this new kind of war-from-afar, so this issue of the Lowdown won't dwell on the foreign combat aspect. Yet the secrecy, lies, and casual disregard for the moral and constitutional violations that have permitted America's rush into drone warfare should put us on guard against the present rush for a mass deployment of drones here at home.
Consider, for example, that in the eight years since the Bush-Cheney regime began using UAV's as killing machines abroad (including Team Obama's drastic escalation of their use since 2009), Congress has never once debated -- much less voted on -- the propriety of this radical change in how we conduct war . Today, a third of all America's military aircraft are drones , up from only five percent in 2005.
Only in January of last year did the President finally acknowledge that the CIA is indeed running a shadow war with these high-tech, extra-judicial UAV attacks. Even then, Obama professed with a straight face that this shouldn't bother anyone, because he, the Pentagon, and the CIA keep drone use on a "very tight leash." His top counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan (now nominated to head the CIA), gilded this prevarication with the preposterous claim that the proliferation of drone strikes is okay, even ethical, because they only kill the targeted bad guys. Referring to strikes between May 2010 and June 2011 that killed more than 600 militants, Brennan declared: "There hasn't been a single collateral death, because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the [drone] capabilities we've been able to develop." In fact, as many as 279 innocents, including children, were killed by CIA drones in that period -- a reality confirmed by independent investigators and chilling first-hand accounts by keening villagers.
We should hold tight to the memory of yesterday's high-level lying about drones, because more insistent and louder lies are coming tomorrow. Not only will we hear them from the Administration, but also from a covey of congressional cheerleaders, an army of corporate executives and lobbyists, a mess of money-hungry universities, and most of your local law enforcement officials -- all of whom are in a hallelujah chorus singing songs of dissimulation about the virtues of UAV's. We'll be told that those feral military drones have now been thoroughly domesticated for homeland use, and we rubes should welcome the little robotic rascals into our communities with open arms and grateful hearts.The soft pitch
Editorial cartoonist and satirist Tom Tomorrow, whose wonderful wit tempers his well-honed sense of political outrage, has created a character he's dubbed "Droney -- the friendly drone." That pretty well sums up the industry's PR pitch for allowing thousands of these camera-bearing aerial contraptions to swarm into our skies (and lives). A child gets lost, a farmer needs to monitor weed growth, homeowners are worried about the exact path of a flood or wildfire, a city seeks a detailed mapping of its 24-hour traffic flow, police are trying to pinpoint the location of a meth lab in a rural county -- in every case, Droney is our friend!
Plus, say proponents, this is going to be a huge, multibillion-dollar industry, a new source of economic growth and jobs just when America most needs it. So, let us not dillydally, let's get cracking.
Excuse us, said a host of privacy organizations, but do you know where you're going? Noting that technological "friends" can (and often do) become the foes of liberty, they pointed out that police authorities at all levels of government are clamoring to have their very own fleets of Ravens, Wasps, Pumas, Hummingbirds, T-Hawks, Predators, Cobras, ScanEagles, Reapers, Dragonfliers, and other brand-name drones -- a demand that is more than a little troubling to Americans who treasure their First and Fourth Amendments.
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, this is not about a dazzling new technology. 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 who'll be getting UAV's. 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're 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?
Now is the time for the public to intervene, before our basic rights are subverted in the name of technological "progress." Among the questions We The People need to answer is the big one: Should we even allow this swarm of what the New York Times calls "Orwellian gnats" to exist in our Land of the Free?The hard pitch
Drone enthusiasts generally offer a one-word response to anyone concerned about the technology's negative impacts: Thbbbbblllttt. "Out of the way," they bellow, as they try to muscle UAV's into law, pushing furiously to get it done before the public learns what's going down.