Published DateFor nearly four years, President Obama refused to admit a foreign-policy "secret" that was widely known here and throughout the world — namely, that the White House, Pentagon and CIA are engaged in ethically questionable and rapidly escalating drone warfare that's killing innocent civilians as well as enemy soldiers in Afghanistan, Yemen and elsewhere. But by nominating John Brennan, the architect of this high-tech kill policy, to head the CIA, the president has let the drone out of the bag.
In the past few days, both Brennan and the policy have been getting a grilling from members of both parties on Capitol Hill, with lots of media also questioning the use of unmanned, remote-controlled aircraft to strike people with rockets launched by technicians viewing computer screens and wielding joysticks from bunkers on air bases back here in the U.S.A.
As Congress, the media and the public ponder the merits of that, however, how about noticing another deeply troubling policy secret looming ever larger on our horizon: the domestic deployment of drones. From Homeland Security officials and the FBI to your state police and county sheriff, these inherently invasive "unmanned aerial vehicles" are being spread across our Land of the Free — and aimed at us.
Shouldn't we get answers to a few basic questions before authorities swarm these "Orwellian gnats" into our skies? For example, what's the cost of this (in liberty and lucre), what's the purpose, and what are the rules to prevent abuses?
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, 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 getting UAVs.
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 are 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?
The goal of drone 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.
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 Democratic Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts in the U.S. House and Ron Wyden of Oregon in the Senate, but also a determined bunch of Republican privacy defenders in Congress and the media, including Kentucky 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."
Americans of all political stripes (from Greens to Libertarians) hold the rights of privacy, free assembly and speech dear. Republican Rep. Ted Poe of Texas, for example, is a hard-right conservative, but he gets it that nothing could be more genuinely conservative than conserving those fundamental rights. Last July 24, Poe took to the House floor to shout out to all of us citizens a timely update of Paul Revere's legendary cry: "The drones are coming!"
He's chairman of the subcommittee on homeland security, so he's not just pissing in the wind. He, Markey, Paul and others are sponsoring similar bills to rein in the harum-scarum drive to infest our skies and society with drones.
Not only is this a fight that grassroots people can win against the profiteers and privacy invaders, but it's one we must win. For more information, go to epic.org.
(Jim Hightower has been called American's most popular populist. The radio commentator and former Texas Commissioner of Agriculture is author of seven books, including "There's Nothing In the Middle of Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos" and his new work, "Swim Against the Current: Even Dead Fish Can Go With The Flow".)