Internationally renowned activist Medea Benjamin has written a compelling case against drones. One of the most fearful aspects is that drone technology is growing so rapidly in so many nations that soon the nations the US deems enemies will be using them against our forces and us. Furthermore, there is about to be an explosion of drone use domestically that will be used for surveillance and potentially for firing on perceived criminals or enemies of the state.
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Excerpt From “Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control”:
The overwhelming US dominance in the use of drones is coming to an end. By 2011, American officials were already publicly fretting that the technology they have spent decades and billions of dollars developing is beginning to fall into the hands of other nations, friends and foes alike.
“From Desert Storm to the present, the US and its allies have had relatively exclusive access to sophisticated precision-strike technologies,” Deputy Secretary of Defense William J. Lynn, III remarked at a June 2011 conference in Washington on the future of war. Over the next decade or two, he said, “that technology will be increasingly possessed by other nations… thereby creating challenges for our ability to project power to distant parts of the globe.”
Indeed, Philip Alston, former UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, noted that an arms race spurred by the widespread use of unmanned aerial vehicles by the US government to assassinate its perceived enemies is already well under way. Over fifty countries have the technology and many of them—including Israel, Russia, Turkey, China, India, Iran, the United Kingdom, and France—either have or are seeking weaponized drones.
Some of these countries do not just possess the technology; they are already using it.
During its 2008-2009 invasion of the Gaza Strip known as “Operation Cast Lead,” the Israeli Defense Force repeatedly deployed unmanned aircraft to fire on suspected members of Hamas, the elected Palestinian government.
According to a leaked US State Department cable reported on by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, in one incident an Israeli drone “shot at two Hamas fighters in front of the mosque and sixteen unintended casualties resulted inside the mosque due to an open door through which shrapnel entered during a time of prayer.”[i] While the technology may be precise, fallible human beings are still the ones picking the targets and pulling the trigger.
Israel ostensibly ended its military occupation of the Gaza Strip in 2005. But thanks to modern drone technology, it does not need boots on the ground to dominate—and extinguish—Palestinian life.
“For us, drones mean death,” said Hamdi Shaqqura of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in an interview with the Washington Post. According to his group, Israeli drones killed at least 825 people between 2006 and 2011, the majority civilians. And that has affected almost every aspect of Palestinian life. According to one study, the majority of children living in Gaza suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of the constant buzzing and bombing of Israeli death machines. Palestinians even have to take drones into account when trying to do something as benign and banal as fixing a broken-down car—you really don’t want a group of people lingering around for long when there’s a plane armed with missiles hovering overhead. “When you hear drones,” Shaqqura explained, “you hear death.”
“It’s continuous, watching us, especially at night,” said Nabil al-Amassi, a Gaza mechanic and father of eight. “You can’t sleep. You can’t watch television. It frightens the kids. When they hear it, they say, ‘It is going to hit us.'”
Along with Israel and the United States, Britain is the only other country to have employed weaponized drones in war as of 2011. In the 1980s, the UK developed the Phoenix, a drone that was briefly used in the Kosovo War and then in Iraq in 2003. So many were lost or crashed that British troops nicknamed the aircraft the “Bugger Off,” as the planes rarely returned from a sortie. For Afghanistan, the UK bought US-made Reapers and rented Israeli Hermes drones. This was part of a stopgap measure while developing their own Watchkeeper drone in a joint venture by Israeli and UK private companies that, after many delays, was supposed to be operational by 2012.
Like their US and Israeli counterparts, the British government sees unmanned aircraft as the way of the future, with the Guardian reporting that UK officials say “almost one third of the [Royal Air Force] could be made up of remotely controlled aircraft within 20 years.”
In July 2011, British drone operators made a mistake that underscores the continued fallibility of modern weapons, killing four civilians in Afghanistan with missiles fired from Reaper drones that they were piloting out of a US air base in Nevada. (The Royal Air Force has been piloting Reapers from Creech Air Force base in Nevada since late 2007.) Lest anyone believe the incident exposed flaws with the increased reliance on the almighty drone, UK military officials were quick to explain the deaths were the result of intelligence failures on the ground rather than problems with the aircraft.
That fallible human element does not harm just those on the receiving end of the West’s liberating Hellfire missiles. When Iraqis were actually able to see the unencrypted video feeds that the unmanned vehicles were broadcasting back to US troops, it gave them the chance to escape and evade assassination. In 2002, Iraqis were also able to use a Soviet-era MIG-25 to shoot down a US drone. In 2006, the Syrian air force reportedly shot down an Israeli spy drone flying on the Lebanese side of the border with Syria. And in a little-reported incident in February 2011, as Yemeni police were transporting a Predator drone that had crashed in southern Yemen, Al Qaeda gunmen attacked, running off with the downed aircraft.
But the perceived enemies of the US government are doing more than just hijacking and shooting down drones: they are using their own.
During its 2006 war on Lebanon, the Israeli Defense Force claimed to have shot down several surveillance drones that Hezbollah had received from Iran. In Iraq, US troops shot down a similar Iranian drone in March 2009.
Just as US drone technology is falling into the hands of less-than-friendly regimes, the technology—like the Hummer and other military equipment before it—is finding its way back to the homeland. In a September 27, 2011 presentation at the headquarters of the US Air Force on the future of “remotely piloted aircraft,” the branch’s chief scientist Mark T. Maybury pointed to “homeland security” as a key future use of drones, complete with maps of the United States intended to highlight the need for “Integrating [drones] in National Airspace.”
The future is here.
In 2005 Congress authorized Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to buy unarmed Predators. By the end of 2011, CBP was flying eight Predator drones along the southwestern border with Mexico and along the northern Canadian border to search for illegal immigrants and smugglers. By 2016, CBP hopes to have two dozen drones in its possession, “giving the agency the ability to deploy a drone anywhere over the continental United States within three hours,” according to the Washington Post. And beyond, it seems, as the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has deployed several drones in neighboring Mexico to spy on that country’s powerful drug cartels.
In June 2011, the Post reported that CBP’s drone fleet had “reached a milestone…having flown 10,000 hours.” But they had little to show for it. The paper flatly noted that the 4,835 undocumented immigrants and 238 drug smugglers that the Department of Homeland Security claimed to have apprehended thanks to UAVs were “not very impressive” numbers. What is impressive is the cost: $7,054 for each undocumented immigrant or smuggler who was caught.
“Congress and the taxpayers ought to demand some kind of real cost-benefit analysis of drones,” said Tom Barry of the Center for International Policy, a Washington think tank. “My sense is that they would conclude these aircraft aren’t worth the money.”
But politicians in Washington don’t seem too concerned. CBP’s Michael Kostelnik told the Post he has never been pressed by a lawmaker to justify his agency’s use of drones. “Instead the question is: Why can’t we have more of them in my district?”
Indeed, many lawmakers are cheerleaders for the drone industry, setting up their own Congressional Drone Caucus (formally known as the Unmanned Systems Caucus) specifically to lobby for more and better drones, to lift export restrictions, and to relax regulations by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that limit the use of drones domestically.
The FAA is responsible for the safety of the nation’s airspace, and that’s why any entity wishing to operate a UAV domestically must obtain FAA permission. The agency had been proceeding very cautiously out of concern that many of the remotely piloted aircraft don’t have adequate “detect sense and avoid” technology to prevent midair collisions. By 2012 it had only permitted a small number of domestic law enforcement agencies to use drones, with strict conditions attached.
But the FAA came under increasing pressure from Congress, industry, and law enforcement agencies to open the skies to UAVs. On February 14, 2012, President Obama gave a Valentine’s Day present to the drone manufacturers. He signed a $63.4 billion Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill that requires the FAA to come up with a comprehensive integration plan within nine months and to fully integrate drones into U.S. airspace by September 15, 2015. The bill also requires expedited access for public users, like law enforcement, firefighters and emergency responders. Within 90 days, it must allow them to fly drones under 4.4 pounds, as long as they are kept under an altitude of 400 feet and meet other requirements.
US drone lobby group that helped draft the bill, Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), was delighted; commercial airlines and pilots were not. They worry that the quick push to integrate drones will not only take away jobs, but lead to accidents. “Until unmanned aircraft can show they won’t run into other planes or the ground, they shouldn’t be allowed to fly with other traffic,” said Lee Moak, president of the Air Line Pilots Association.
Even before the new rules had gone into effect, the CBP had made some very unconventional—and some would say illegal—uses of its drones to assist local, state and federal law enforcement. As the Los Angeles Times reported in December 2011, CBP’s Kostelnik acknowledged that far beyond just providing surveillance at the border, Predators are flown “in many areas around the country, not only for federal operators, but also for state and local law enforcement and emergency responders in times of crisis.”
It was deemed a crisis, I suppose, when drones were called in to Nelson County, North Dakota to help Sheriff Kelly Janke look for six missing cows on the Brossart family farm in the early evening of June 23, 2011. The heroic drones helped find and apprehend the cattle rustlers—and rescue the six cows.
Police forces, full of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, are chomping at the bit to get the latest in 21st century military equipment. And while they anxiously await FAA approval, some departments have applied for—and received—permission to test out various kinds of drones.
The Miami-Dade Police Department in Florida purchased a 20-pound drone. “It gives us a good opportunity to have an eye up there,” Miami-Dade Police Director James Loftus told reporters. “Not a surveilling eye, not a spying eye. Let’s make the distinction. A surveilling eye to help us to do the things we need to do, honestly, to keep people safe.”
In November 2011, the Miami police department also obtained approval from the FAA to fly two $50,000-a-piece surveillance drones said to resemble flying garbage cans, albeit limited to heights of just three hundred feet. “No other law enforcement agency in the country is using this,” bragged Sergeant Andrew Cohen. “We’re forging new ground.”
The Mesa County, Colo., Sheriff’s Office is testing a remotely operated miniature helicopter designed to carry wireless video, still cameras, and light thermal imaging equipment. The sheriff’s office is using the testing process to gather information that could eventually lead to the helicopter being approved by the FAA for daily use by law enforcement for search and rescue operations, for providing real time updates to tactical teams during crisis, or for simply sending the helicopter out to photograph a crime scene.
In October 2011, a police department just outside of Houston, Texas, dropped $300,000 in federal homeland security grant money on an unmanned, 50-pound helicopter decked out with a powerful zoom camera and infra-red equipment. While unarmed—for now—Michael Buscher, CEO of manufacturer Vanguard Defense Industries, told reporters the drone is designed to be weaponized and could in the future be outfitted with “what we call less lethal systems.” Those include Tasers that can electrocute suspects on the ground and bean-bag-firing guns called a stun batons.
“You have a stun baton where you can actually engage somebody at altitude with the aircraft,” Buscher explained. “A stun baton would essentially disable a suspect.” But not to worry, Sheriff Tommy Gage assured reporters. “We’re not going to use it to be invading somebody’s privacy. It’ll be used for situations we have with criminals,” he said. Situations, like hunting fleeing suspects. Or helping SWAT teams scope out an area during a standoff. Or during other criminal investigations, like those involving potential drug shipments.
“No matter what we do in law enforcement, somebody’s going to question it, but we’re going to do the right thing, and I can assure you of that,” Gage said at a press conference.
Feeling reassured? The ACLU isn’t. The civil rights watchdog is particularly concerned that drones are moving us closer to a “surveillance society” in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded, and scrutinized by the authorities. In a December 2011 report on aerial surveillance, the ACLU predicted that “all the pieces appear to be lining up for the eventual introduction of routine aerial surveillance in American life—a development that would profoundly change the character of public life in the United States.” This is especially worrisome since “our privacy laws are not strong enough to ensure that the new technology will be used responsibly and consistently with democratic values.” The report concluded that based on current trends—technology development, law enforcement interest, political and industry pressure, and the lack of legal safeguards—”it is clear that drones pose a looming threat to Americans’ privacy.”
“The potential for abuse is vast,” warns Constitutional lawyer and writer Glenn Greenwald. “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.”
Equally creepy is the possibility that drone technology is not just coming back to the US by way of local law enforcement agencies desperate for new, Department of Homeland Security-funded gadgets. Soon, the technology could be brought back to the homeland whether US policymakers like it or not.
As Ralph Nader observed in a column published in the fall of 2011, drone technology is “becoming so dominant and so beyond any restraining framework of law or ethics that its use by the US government around the world may invite a horrific blowback.” Two days after the piece was published, a twenty-six-year-old man from Massachusetts, Rezwan Ferdaus, was arrested and accused of plotting to attack the Pentagon and US Capitol with small drone aircraft filled with explosives. The plan he delivered to undercover agents involved using three remote-controlled planes, similar to military drones, guided by GPS equipment.
Ferdaus, a Northeastern University graduate with a degree in physics, had already used his skills to convert eight cell phones into detonators, supplying them to undercover agents who he thought were affiliated with Al Qaeda. FBI agents seemed to have egged him on to go further, providing him with assault rifles, grenades, 25 pounds of C-4 plastic explosives and even an F-86 remote-controlled aircraft.
According to the criminal complaint filed in court, the planes were large enough to carry “a variety of payloads (including a lethal payload of explosives), could use a wide range of take-off and landing environments, and could fly different flight patterns than commercial airlines, thus reducing detection.” The Capitol’s dome would be “blown to smithereens,” Ferdaus was quoted in the complaint as saying.
If he had succeeded in creating and launching a suicide-bombing drone, Ferdaus would arguably only have beaten the U.S. government at its own game. Less than a month before news of the alleged plot was made public, the US Army announced it was awarding military contractor AeroVironment a $4.9 million contract to supply it with a small, backpack-size drone capable of crash-diving into a target kamikaze-style.
John Villasenor, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles, told the New York Times such a drone in the hands of terrorists could pose a challenge that may prove extremely difficult to thwart. “If they are skimming over rooftops and trees,” he said, “they will be almost impossible to shoot down.”
Of course, for years so-called terror experts have warned of extremists setting off suitcase bombs in American cities. Despite the constant fear mongering from the political establishment, the truth is that people in the Middle East have more to fear from the US government’s weapons of war than the American public does from deadly tools in the hands of terrorists.
Still, while Ferdaus’s plot was foiled and previous threats may have been overblown, the point was driven home: Watch out, America—what goes around, comes around.
Copyright by Medea Benjamin. Not to be reposted without permission.
Please help spread Benjamin’s message and support Truthout/BuzzFlash by getting a copy of “Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control” by clicking here now.
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