In the nation’s capital and around the United States, it’s a safe bet that debate soon will be heating up about unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – most people call them drones – peering down at us from above. Increased use of drones in America’s airways seems inevitable, yet U.S. leaders differ over their effectiveness and over their place in a society that places a premium on civil liberties. These are some observations by one citizen who keeps peering up to see if a UAV is overhead.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has used drones to monitor U.S. borders since 2005. Now, DHS plans to use robot planes to conduct surveillance in cities, suburbs, and rural areas far from border regions. Last Nov. 19, it was reported that DHS signed a $443 million contract to purchase up to 14 MQ-9 Predator B drones in addition to the 10 it now operates. Observers foresee a next generation of high-tech drones that may be able to stay aloft as long as four days and use electro-optical sensors to monitor thousands of events simultaneously.
Some in Congress, on both sides of the aisle, share concerns expressed by civil liberties activists. An American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report says allowing drones greater access takes the nation “a large step closer to a surveillance society in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded, and scrutinized by the authorities.” One unlikely bedfellow of the ACLU is gun-rights advocate and Fox News commentator Judge Andrew Napolitano, who said on television last May, “The first American patriot that shoots down one of these drones that comes too close to his children in his backyard will be an American hero.”
On the other side of the argument, Congress has a “drone caucus” – officially, the Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus – of lawmakers who favor expanded domestic drone use. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, wants DHS to use “imagination in identifying threats and protecting the homeland.” McCaul and Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., want DHS to assume responsibility for all drone operations in U.S. territory, arguing that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has enough other responsibilities to attend to.
The FAA had been moving at a glacial pace with a congressionally mandated requirement to select six test sites around the country to evaluate the deployment of drones by both government and the private sector by 2015. On Valentine’s Day the FAA finally released a Screening Information Request (SIR) on the FAA Contracting Opportunities website that begins the selection process for six “UAS Test Sites” as required by the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. DHS has not requested and apparently does not want a dominant role in UAV oversight but could get it from lawmakers anyway.
Powerhouse or Pest?
Apart from questions about civil liberties and intrusive government, it’s legitimate to ask whether the nation is getting fair value out of the UAVs that already prowl American frontiers in search of smugglers, human traffickers, and other lowlifes. There is a body of evidence suggesting that manned aircraft are less expensive to operate and more effective. It’s not clear whether downward-looking UAVs are genuinely guarding U.S. sovereignty or whether they’re merely a minor pest in the view of the bad guys as the nickname given to them by drug runners – “el mosco,” the mosquito – seems to suggest.
DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano – no relation to the judge with the same surname – told a House of Representatives committee last July 25 that her department is preparing to use surveillance drones in locations not limited to U.S. border regions for “public safety.” She said DHS science and technology directorate is looking at drones that could provide “situational awareness in a large public safety [matter] or disaster, such as a forest fire, and how they could give us better information.” But DHS officials declined to appear at a separate July hearing aimed at discussing privacy rights in an America of the near future in which the FAA predicts 30,000 drones will be aloft by 2020.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a component of DHS, has been monitoring U.S. borders since 2005 with nine MQ-9 Predator B unmanned aerial vehicles. The big (65-foot, 7-inch wingspan, 10,000-pound gross weight) UAVs are called Reapers when they’re used by the military and two of them are dubbed Guardians when modified for offshore maritime patrol duties. All carry synthetic aperture radar and electro-optical sensors. In addition, the Guardians carry sensors optimized for offshore work.
An op-ed piece in the Washington Times on Dec. 10 argued that while Congress bought the Predator Bs to protect America’s borders, one was used in 2011 “to spy on a North Dakota farmer who allegedly refused to return a half dozen of his neighbor’s cows that had strayed onto his pastures.” The newspaper called this “a watershed moment” because it was “one of the first known times an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) owned by the U.S. government was used against civilians for local police work.” The use of the MQ-9 becomes a little more understandable, perhaps, when it’s added that the farmer was engaged in a standoff with the Grand Forks police SWAT team and the sheriff’s department – but questions of privacy and of civil liberties persist.
There is also another question about DHS drones for which an answer is elusive: Are they effective?
Manned Aircraft in the Mix
According to DHS statistics, the department’s 14 P-3 Orion patrol aircraft – turboprops that have been in naval service for 50 years – are outshining the Guardian in busting cocaine smugglers. As reported on the website Nextgov, in fiscal year 2011 the Orions helped intercept $11.1 billion worth of cocaine weighing the equivalent of 76 Volkswagen Beetles while “the high-tech drones did not contribute to any sea-based seizures during that time.”
The Orions operate in all weather conditions. In contrast, the DHS inspector general says the Guardians are idle 63 percent of the time “because they can’t be dispatched in inclement conditions.” Staffing issues and FAA flight restrictions also hinder the UAVs.
A $3.2 million DHS pilot program in Los Angeles, Calif., is testing the capability of a small drone to detect a dirty bomb or a nuclear meltdown. But dozens of drones provided to local police jurisdictions throughout the country remain grounded because of technical glitches, privacy objections, and FAA rules. A report last Aug. 24 in the Tampa Tribune that drones would be patrolling downtown Tampa, Fla., during last summer’s Republican National Convention aroused plenty of interest but turned out to be inaccurate.
One measure of the way drones are proliferating: On a one-day visit to the Dominican Republic last summer, Secretary Napolitano signed an agreement for cooperative use of drones by a joint force of U.S. and Dominican members.
View from Oakton
It’s uncomfortable to be in agreement with Judge Napolitano, who is a kind of loose cannon as a voice for the far right. Moreover, no citizen-versus-drone scenario will ever be as simplistic as the judge suggests. Still, Napolitano may be on to something; from my point of view, the judge has a point.
At my home in Oakton, Va., I live just a couple of miles from the headquarters of the National Rifle Association, a powerful advocate for gun owners, some of whom believe their right to keep and bear arms was written into the Bill of Rights to protect them from their government. They have a point, and it will get a lot of support if we see more drones overhead, but I won’t be comfortable if my neighbor reaches into his gun locker and begins blasting away at the government’s UAV.
Some Americans, of course, won’t mind the robot surveillance. Whenever government threatens to intrude further into our lives, someone always says, “I haven’t done anything wrong. Why should I care if anyone sees what I’m doing?” But when I’m in my backyard with my 65-pound talking Labrador retriever, Autumn, I don’t want the Department of Homeland Security watching us. If I’m going to get caught allowing my dog to leave her hallmark on the next-door lawn, I want to get caught by eyes on the ground.
Obviously, the future of the UAV in American life is a serious issue and evokes strong emotion from various quarters. I hope the nation can have a healthy debate that covers all aspects of the situation before we see too many UAVs overhead.