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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 4/12/13

Drone Bill Stalemate in Maine Over Warrantless Surveillance

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Message Bruce K. Gagnon
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Maine Legislature & the Debate Over Drone Surveillance Warrants
Maine's Joint Judiciary Committee had their work session on LD 236 "An Act To Protect the Privacy of Citizens from Domestic Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Use" yesterday in our capital city of Augusta.  After a long debate between the A ttorney General and the ACLU the assembled committee members voted unanimously to kick the drone bill can down the road - they decided to postpone any decision for another two weeks.

The session began an hour late so four of us stood outside the hearing room and held signs opposing drones.  In another hearing room next door a packed crowd was debating the merits of gun control and many Tea Party members were there.  They were very interested in our anti-drone signs and we found most agreed with our concerns about drone surveillance without warrants.

One of the gun-rights supporters showed us a bumper sticker that had a drone on it and the words "Protect our 2nd amendment rights to shoot down drones."  It was heartening to have discussions with these Tea Party folks about an issue that we could agree on and felt good to have a civil exchange for once. In that moment we could see each other's humanity and agree that the power structure often keeps us divided against one another.  So it was good to hear they were thinking along those lines like we are. I intend to follow up with some of their leaders to see if we can work together on the drone bill.

Once the hearing began it was clear that Maine's Attorney General (AG) Janet Mills (former V-P of Maine Democratic Party) was hardly in a mood to negotiate with the ACLU over the fundamental question: Should law enforcement in Maine be required to have a warrant before they can use a drone for surveillance of citizens?

AG Mills made the following case:
- We have a serious disagreement with the ACLU on several points
- It's a burden on law enforcement to get warrants - you can't always find a judge to authorize them
- The bill contains too many cumbersome procedures for law enforcement
- The ACLU bill weighs the scales against law enforcement
Instead AG Mills proposed a temporary moratorium until July 1, 2014 to allow a consortium of law enforcement agencies to come up with " minimum standards" that would include prior authorization by "some official" before drones could be used for surveillance. She didn't specify who the official should be - hopefully someone that is not too difficult to reach on weekends like those hidden judges. 

Most important for me though was her last point, sort of slipped into the conversation almost as an after thought.  But this one had clearly been thought out.  AG Mills said that the drone bill should in no way impede the possibility of a drone test center in northern Maine.  Bingo!

I am convinced that the leadership of the Democratic Party in Augusta is under intense pressure these days on the drone bill.  They are hearing strong support from the grassroots who obviously understand the fundamental importance of protecting our tattered civil liberties against coming unwarranted drone surveillance. But the Democrats, who now control the Maine legislature, but not the governorship, also have their eyes on that big prize.  In 2014 the Democrats want to win the governorship again.  And they want the support of the police, the growing aerospace industry interests in Maine, the fledgling drone manufacturing folks in our state, and the citizens up north surrounding the now closed Loring AFB who think a drone test center and a missile defense base located there would be a big job creator.
The Democrats understand that the federal government's national jobs policy these days is military production and endless war.  They've seen the writing on the wall that declares military projects are the priority of the corporate dominated government we live under.  The Democrats think that if they want to win the governorship they have to throw a bone to folks around Loring and to the aerospace industry . 
The fact is that 37 states are now in full capitalist-competition for the six drone testing sites around the US that Obama has announced will ultimately bring 30,000 drones into our skies.  It will become a bidding war, and sweeteners will have to be thrown at the feet of the Pentagon to entice them to come to a particular community.  One such piece of candy could be the promise that the Maine state legislature will not require drone operators to have a warrant before they do surveillance on citizens across our state.
I came away from the Judiciary Committee work session on LD 236 seeing the deadly connection between the bill's key element - protecting our civil liberties - and the proposed drone test base in Maine. 
For those wondering if drones will ever come to Maine, the question has been answered.  They are here now and we'd better look up before it is too late.
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Bruce Gagnon is the Coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space.


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