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Droning on Around Us

Look, up in the sky … It’s a bird! It’s a plane. It’s a … drone?

While those are not words we are ultimately familiar with, they are words we may very well be saying in the coming days in the skies above the United States. While model airplane enthusiasts have long enjoyed flying small remote controlled aircraft around open fields and skies for their own enjoyment, advancements in technology have made what was once seen as a hobby into a very real issue of surveillance and civil liberties.

Today drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are the tip of the spear in the U.S. arsenal taking out al Qaeda leaders and other bad guys around the world. The recent take down of Al Qaeda’s number 2 guy, Abu Yahya al-Libi in northern Pakistan is just another example of the extensive use of these tools since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began more than a decade ago.

When the United States first went into Afghanistan following the September 11 attacks, the American public got its first widescale public exposure to the use and effectiveness of the Predator. Made by General Atomics, the Predator is a UAV capable of not only staying aloft for extended periods of time and beaming back live images of the targeted area below, but delivering one or two Hellfire missiles to extinguish whatever its ground controllers no longer want walking the face of the Earth.

The use of the Predator and other UAVs has not only allowed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to be effectively prosecuted, but has saved the lives of American and Allied forces while exterminating people we are better off without. Controlled by remote pilots, often in areas far from the actual battlefields, these tools have put eyes, ears and weapons in places formerly out of reach.

So if they are so good at keeping an eye on what is happening around a given area, what would the harm be if we had UAVs flying around the United States? That question, and the response by Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, has ignited a debate about the use of these technologies on, or over, American soil.

What may give comfort to American citizens in protecting its men and women in uniform and taking out bad guys on a far off battlefield does not necessarily provide much comfort to some people if it flies overhead here in the US.

NASA Predator B

The narrow fuselage of NASA’S Ikhana unmanned science aircraft, a civil version of General Atomics’ Predator B, is evident in this view from underneath. NASA is testing the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) system, that will permit navigation using the Next-Gen air traffic control system aboard the aircraft. The safety issue of unmanned aircraft in American skies has taken a back seat to the constitutional issues. NASA photo by Tony Landis

In a May 29, 2012 interview with WTOP’s “Ask the Governor” program, the Virginia governor (and potential Republican vice presidential nominee) was asked about the use of these tools in Virginia’s skies. He explained his support for the use of drones for policing purposes by saying, “If you’re keeping police officers safe, making it more productive and saving money…it’s absolutely the right thing to do.” Applauding their battlefield successes and efficiencies, McDonnell shared that these types of tools could aid in police surveillance, situational awareness in emergencies, traffic coverage and other law enforcement duties.

McDonnell’s points on surveillance and efficiencies have validity.

New technologies and tools are increasingly available to law enforcement agencies to help provide enhanced ways to perform law enforcement duties while protecting those doing what truly are life-endangering jobs.

However, many people fear that the use of drones flying over Virginia or any other U.S. state will open the “Pandora’s Box,” of a “Big Brother” police force using various technologies to engage in 24-7 warrantless surveillance of their lives. For every legitimate public “good” they may provide, there is a very real and possible “ill” that these technologies and tools will be used for less than honorable and legitimate purposes. Such are the arguments of groups like the Rutherford Institute and other civil liberty groups who were not at all happy with McDonnell’s enthusiasm for flying the friendly skies and having an eye from above. This is not the first time we’ve heard these concerns about eyes in the sky.

Several years back, the Department of Homeland Security wanted to establish what was called the National Applications Office (NAO) which would use “government owned, space based assets for domestic law enforcement purposes.”

With little to no aggressive explanation by the department as to how the program would be run; no public or private sector stakeholder development to speak in its favor; no strategic communications to make its case as well as describe how civil liberties would be protected; and no sense for the politics of the words that their mission described, the NAO ended up becoming DOA.

The same thing could happen with McDonnell’s endorsement of drones for police use. There are very legitimate and intrinsic benefits UAVs and related technologies and tools can offer that a squad car and cop walking a beat can’t provide. These same UAV technologies could benefit emergency managers planning and responding to an incident; or fire departments in assessing large scale responses; or search and rescue forces looking for lost campers and so forth.

The challenge with any emerging technology and tool being used in a homeland security or national security space is thinking through as much as possible the civil rights and civil liberties issues and discussing them openly with supporters and detractors at the outset. Critics were quick to blast McDonnell for even suggesting the use of drones over the skies of the Virginia Commonwealth. What they missed or failed to pay attention to were the defined and designated uses he shared in his radio interview in how they can used. While McDonnell did not offer a multi-page laundry list of specifics to drone usage, he deserves credit for being proactive in thinking through how tools like this can better safeguard the citizens and the Constitution he swore to protect upon taking office.

Everyone deserves to have their privacy and civil liberties protected. There are a lot of places in the world where such rights are unheard of. In this country we are at least afforded the opportunity to debate these issues, and the drone debate in America is really about to begin…


Richard “Rich” Cooper is a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC, a government and public affairs...