The growing menace of domestic drones

A look inside the drone industry reveals the dangers and the reasons for their rapid U.S. expansion

Published December 12, 2011 4:58PM (EST)


Last week, I wrote about the rapidly growing domestic drone industry and the largely undiscussed dangers it poses. The Los Angeles Times yesterday reported that local police in North Dakota used a Predator B drone -- the most common unmanned aircraft employed by the U.S. military to attack and kill "insurgents" in the Muslim world -- to apprehend three men. The suspects had refused to turn over six cows which had wandered onto their land (the laws governing open-range ownership are in dispute and the farm owners claimed they are entitled to keep the cows); after being tasered in an earlier incident on their land for allegedly resisting arrest, they brandished weapons at the officers who came to seize the cows. The police, armed with a warrant, then called in a Predator drone to fly over their land, locate them, and transmit video images to the police; when the drone revealed the suspects were unarmed, the police entered their property and arrested them.

These Predator drones are based at Grand Forks Air Force Base and are owned by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency. Although the FBI, DEA and other federal agencies have used Predator drones on U.S. soil for years for surveillance purposes, and although local police have used other types of drones, this is the first time Predators have been used by law enforcement to apprehend suspects.

The LA Times quotes a retired U.S. General acknowledging that Predators are used "in many areas around the country, not only for federal operators, but also for state and local law enforcement." Customs officials who own the drones claim there is legal authorization for this usage because they indicated in their budget requests to Congress to purchase the Predators that one purpose was "interior law enforcement support." But Jane Harman -- the former Blue Dog member of Congress who was the Chair of the Homeland Security Sub-Committee at the time the Predator purchases were approved -- insists that "no one ever discussed using Predators to help local police serve warrants or do other basic work." But even if you believe Customs officials, think about what they're saying: the importation of drones to U.S. soil for law enforcement purposes was authorized not by a new law or regulatory scheme, nor pursuant to Congressional hearings or debates, but all because they inserted the phrase "interior law enforcement support" into their budget request -- such a trivial mention that even the Chair of the Homeland Security sub-committee says she didn't even realize this was being approved.

Whatever else is true, the growing use of drones for an increasing range of uses on U.S. soil is incredibly consequential and potentially dangerous, for the reasons I outlined last week, and yet it is receiving very little Congressional, media or public attention. It's just a creeping, under-the-radar change. Even former Congresswoman Harman -- who never met a surveillance program she didn't like and want to fund (until, that is, it was revealed that she herself had been subjected to covert eavesdropping as part of surveillance powers she once endorsed) -- has serious concerns about this development: "There is no question that this could become something that people will regret," she told the LA Times. The revelation that a Predator drone has been used on U.S. soil this way warrants additional focus on this issue.

* * * * *

There is always a large segment of the population that reflexively supports the use of greater government and police power -- it's usually the same segment that has little objection to Endless War -- and it's grounded in a mix of standard authoritarianism (I side with authority over those they accused of being Bad and want authorities increasingly empowered to stop the Bad people) along with naiveté (I don't really worry that new weapons and powers will be abused by those in power, especially when -- like now -- those in power are Good). This mindset manifests in the domestic drone context specifically by dismissing their use as nothing more than the functional equivalent of police helicopters. This is a view grounded in pure ignorance.

The unique dangers of domestic drones, which I documented last week, exist completely independent of their weaponization potential, but weaponization nonetheless must be considered. Police officials are already speaking openly about their desire to weaponize their drones with "nonlethal weapons such as Tasers or a bean-bag gun." Anyone who doubts that this is going to happen should just consider what the drone manufacturing industry itself is saying. They continuously emphasize to investors and others that a major source of business growth for their drone products will be domestic, non-military use.

Consider the case of AeroVironment, Inc. (AV), the nation's leading manufacturer of small drones, used both for surveillance and attack purposes (the leading manufacturer of the larger drones, such as the Predator, is General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc., owned by the privately-held General Atomics). In their 2011 Annual Report, AV repeatedly touts domestic uses as the source for future growth:

AV specializes in the manufacture of drone products so small that they can be transported in the trunk of a car and assembled and deployed within a matter of minutes. In other words, rather than being remote-operated from a military base, they can be used by a single soldier -- or police officer -- chasing a suspect, and can be deployed to find suspects around corners, behind buildings, in urban environments: and not just find them, but kill them. The product which AV appears to believe holds the greatest promise is one they have christened "The Switchblade," the research and development of which has been funded in part by the U.S. Government.

As I noted last week, AV prominently touts an article hailing the Switchblade as "an ingenious, miniature unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that is also a weapon" and "the leading edge of what is likely to be the broader, even wholesale, weaponization of unmanned systems." Because of how small, light and easily deployable it is, the article dubs this new product "the ultimate assassin bug." Basically, controlled by the operator at the scene, it worms its way around buildings and into small areas, sending its surveillance imagery to an i-Pad held by the operator, who can then direct the Switchblade to lunge toward and kill the target (hence the name) by exploding in his face. Here's how AV describes its new product:

For those dismissing concerns about drones by claiming (falsely) that they are the equivalent of police helicopters, won't those same people dismiss concerns over weaponized drones by arguing: there's no difference between allowing the police to Taser you or shoot you themselves and allowing them to do that by drone? This is always how creeping police state powers are entrenched: one step at a time. For those who are perfectly content with having  stealth, hovering drones over U.S. soil for sustained surveillance purposes -- based on the reasoning that the police can already engage in surveillance so why not let them do it more efficiently? -- what possible objections will there be to having the police use weaponized drones? After all, the police can already Taser, pepper spray and shoot people: why not let them do it with drones? AV itself certainly expects precisely that lack of resistance:

The fact is that drones vest vast new powers that police helicopters and existing weapons do not vest: and that's true not just for weaponization but for surveillance. Drones enable a Surveillance State unlike anything we've seen. Because small drones are so much cheaper than police helicopters, many more of them can be deployed at once, ensuring far greater surveillance over a much larger area. Their small size and stealth capability means they can hover without any detection, and they can remain in the air for far longer than police helicopters. Their hovering capability also means they can surveil a single spot for much longer than military satellites, which move with the earth's rotation (see AV's Report at p. 11 -- the section entitled "Stratospheric Persistent UAS" -- for all the reasons drones can provide uniquely sustained surveillance in ways that satellites and police helicopters cannot).

As I noted last week, one new type of drone already in use by the U.S. military in Afghanistan — the Gorgon Stare, named after the “mythical Greek creature whose unblinking eyes turned to stone those who beheld them” — is "able to scan an area the size of a small town" and "the most sophisticated robotics use artificial intelligence that [can] seek out and record certain kinds of suspicious activity"; boasted one U.S. General: “Gorgon Stare will be looking at a whole city, so there will be no way for the adversary to know what we’re looking at, and we can see everything." Only ignorance and irrationality can lead someone to assert that surveillance drones do nothing more than what police helicopters already enable.

Beyond the natural extension of the authoritarian mindset -- if we use drones to find and/or kill Bad Guys over there, why not let our leaders use them over here? (and Wired today published photographs of the civilian impact of President Obama's drone campaign "over there") -- a separate reason the domestic importation of drones is highly likely is that this industry is spending large amounts of money to ensure it. When a scandal erupted several years ago over corporate-paid trips for members of Congress and their staffs -- the most common destinations being such strategically vital locales such as Paris, Hawaii, and Italy -- it was General Atomics, the maker of the Predator drone, that was the largest underwriter of those trips. This is an industry that has long consolidated its control over Congress using the standard mix of campaign contributions, legalized bribery, and bipartisan lobbyist armies.

General Atomics employs a large team of lobbyist firms filled with former government officials, Congressional staffers and even members of Congress. Those lobbyists include former GOP Sen. Al D'Amato and his son Christopher (ex-Senior Counsel at the SEC); Dave Kilian, who boasts of "29 years of service to the Federal Government in both the executive and legislative branches" and "21 years as a professional staffer for various leaders of the House Appropriations Committee"; Letita White, who for 21 years "worked for [GOP Democratic] Congressman Jerry Lewis, the current Ranking Minority Member of the House Appropriations Committee"; Jessica Eggimann, former House staffer to GOP Rep. Joe Wilson on the Veterans' Affairs Committee; and Clayton Heil, the former "deputy staff director and general counsel to the Senate Appropriations Committee." That's just a fraction of the influence-peddlers laboring in the halls of Washington for GA.

Unsurprisingly, GA's annual lobbying budget is in excess of $2 million. AeroVironment's lobbying expenditures are now close to $1 million each year. Meanwhile, a top GA in-house lobbyist, Gary Hopper, personally doles out tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to key House members of both parties who work on defense issues. They are focused on lobbying for exactly the bills one would expect: defense appropriations, Homeland Security budgets and the like. They believe, as they make very clear, that their future growth depends upon expanding the use of drones beyond military uses into domestic law enforcement settings. With these armies of influence-peddlers lined up to ensure that happens, combined with the security-fixated mentality of America's political and media classes and the authoritarian factions of its citizenry, what is going to stop the full-scale importation of drone technology -- for surveillance and weaponization -- onto American soil? Why would anyone think that's not going to happen?

* * * * *

Not just the potential for abuse -- but the likelihood of it, really the inevitability -- is self-evident for so many reasons. Today, Paul Krugman decreed that the U.S. and Europe are suffering not a recession but a "depression," and highlighted the social unrest and anti-democratic forces growing in Europe. Economic- and austerity-fuelled riots have already struck London and Athens. Police in England have formally labeled the Occupy movement a "Terrorist threat" alongside Al Qaeda and FARC and, of course, excessive police force has been repeatedly used against Occupy protesters on U.S. soil. And U.S. Terrorism officials now routinely emphasize the supposedly domestic nature of the Terrorist threat, with greater powers constantly being seized in its name for domestic uses.

It's beyond obvious that policy planners and law enforcement officials expect serious social unrest. Why wouldn't they: when has sustained, severe economic suffering and anxiety of the sort we are now seeing -- along with pervasive, deep anger at the political class and its institutions -- not produced that type of unrest? Drones are the ultimate tool for invasive, sustained surveillance and control, and one would have to be historically ignorant and pathologically naive not to understand its capacity for abuse.

Take the case just reported on by the LA Times. At first, I was somewhat baffled as to why this case -- involving a minor dispute over 6 wandering cows, followed by some not unusual hostility from farm owners toward law enforcement -- would prompt the first use of a Predator B drone to apprehend domestic suspects. But looking a bit further into the matter made it clear. The suspects in question are basically political dissidents: they are adherents to the "sovereign citizen" movement which basically engages in mischievous civil disobedience -- the filing of fraudulent lien documents and the like -- to protest what it believes to be illegitimate government authority. Although a few members of that movement have engaged in violence (as is true for most political movements), these particular suspects are not accused of any wrongdoing with regard to any of that, but their participation in an anti-government movement is obviously what led federal authorities to lend their Predator drone to apprehend them.

In the name of "homegrown Terrorism," so many of the most recent War on Terror expansions have entailed application for domestic uses: from the Obama administration's assault on Miranda rights to its claimed power to assassinate U.S. citizens to the latest detention bill about to pass Congress. The Surveillance State and the police powers ushered in by the War on Terror have been widely applied to domestic political dissent. The U.S. Government's fixation on identifying and punishing dissidents is illustrated by the administration's creepy new "hear-something, see-something" campaign against "domestic radicalization": encouraging teachers and children to spot and then report those "making statements that indicate a rejection of American society."

It takes little imagination to see the dangers of this militarization of domestic police powers; in fact, it takes extreme denseness and authoritarian trust to dismiss it as "paranoia" or "hysteria." Here's how Matt Taibbi put it when trumpeting the dangers of potential domestic application of the new detention bill:

Here’s where I think we’re in very dangerous territory. We have two very different but similarly large protest movements going on right now in the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement. What if one of them is linked to a violent act? What if a bomb goes off in a police station in Oakland, or an IRS office in Texas? What if the FBI then linked those acts to Occupy or the Tea Party? . . . .

This effort to eat away at the rights of the accused was originally gradual, but to me it looks like that process is accelerating. It began in the Bush years with a nebulous description of terrorist sedition that may or may not have included links to Sunni extremist groups in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But words like "associated" and "substantial" and "betray" have crept into the discussion, and now it feels like the definition of a terrorist is anyone who crosses some sort of steadily-advancing invisible line in their opposition to the current government. . . .

This confusion about the definition of terrorism comes at a time when the economy is terrible, the domestic government is more unpopular than ever, and there is quite a lot of radical and even revolutionary political agitation going on right here at home. There are people out there – I’ve met some of them, in both the Occupy and Tea Party movements – who think that the entire American political system needs to be overthrown, or at least reconfigured, in order for progress to be made. . . .

At what point do those luminaries start equating al-Qaeda supporters with, say, radical anti-capitalists in the Occupy movement? What exactly is the difference between such groups in the minds (excuse me, in what passes for the minds) of the people who run this country?

That difference seems to be getting smaller and smaller all the time, and such niceties as American citizenship and the legal tradition of due process seem to be less and less meaningful to the people who run things in America.

What does seem real to them is this “battlefield earth” vision of the world, in which they are behind one set of lines and an increasingly enormous group of other people is on the other side.

No matter one's views, the escalating addition of drones -- weaponized or even just surveillance -- to the vast arsenal of domestic weapons that already exist is a serious, consequential development. The fact that it has happened with almost no debate and no real legal authorization is itself highly significant. One thing is for certain: this is a development that is going to continue and increase rapidly. It needs far more attention than it has thus far received.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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