Drones are the future, especially in foreign wars, surveillance and law enforcement.
In all sizes, armed and unarmed, drones are proliferating at home and abroad. Some are loaded with missiles, others simply with Tasers, but all carry surveillance payloads.
These "eyes in the skies," also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPA), may soon be inescapable. For the most part, however, drones fly outside the radar of public scrutiny, Congressional oversight or international control.
In the seven years that the CIA and US military have deployed killer drones, the US Congress has never once debated the new commitment to drone operations. Although the CIA and the US military now routinely direct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) operations that enter foreign airspace, these interventions haven't been subject to serious Congressional review.
Drone operations often proceed without any authorization or knowledge of the intervened nations.
On the domestic front, local police and Homeland Security agents are also enthusiastically deploying drones for law enforcement and border security missions. At all levels, government in the United States is sidelining mounting civil rights, privacy and air safety concerns. The US Congress functions more as a booster for the drone industry than as a regulator.
In the United States, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and the ACLU have brought a legal challenge to the "targeted killings" carried out by the CIA and the military's Joint Special Operations Command. "The executive branch is claiming the authority to target and kill any individual anywhere in the world - including American citizens - without any judicial process or oversight and without any transparency or accountability," Leili Kashani, CCR's advocacy program manager, told Truthout. "It is subverting the Constitution and international law in assuming the role of judge, jury and executioner."
Lately, other civil liberties groups, local and national, are also raising concerns about the lack of transparency, accountability and oversight over domestic drone deployment. Such groups include the Center for Technology and Democracy, the Electronic Policy Information Center and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Drone proliferation has sparked the creation of new organizations, such as the International Center for Robotic Arms Controls, which are demanding global governance over international drone missions.
A stream of recent media reports about drone proliferation at home has sparked rising public interest and concern in the United States. The lack of attention by Congress to the drone-related privacy issues has precipitated a surge of citizen activism and nongovernmental organization advocacy - accompanied by a wave of alarmed blog postings and commentary.
The rising concerns in America about the implications of drone deployment parallels a more advanced public debate in Great Britain about the onset of the "surveillance society" and about the legal and human consequences of drone interventions in foreign nations.
One example of this new attention in the United States is the upcoming Drone Summit, which will bring a variety of civil libertarians, human rights activists, robotics technology experts and peace activists to Washington, DC, on April 28-29. The Drone Summit is jointly sponsored by the peace group CodePink and the legal advocacy organizations Reprieve (UK) and Center for Constitutional Rights. Described as the "first international drone summit," the event will feature military experts and first-hand testimonies by victims of drone strikes in Pakistan.
Medea Benjamin, author of the forthcoming book "Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control," says that "our nation is leading the way toward a new form of warfare where pilots sitting on the ground thousands of miles away command drone strikes, where targets are- in military jargon- 'neutralized,' and where unintended victims are dismissed as 'collateral damage.'"
Yet, drones aren't only about war fighting and extrajudicial killings overseas. Drones are also being deployed domestically by border security and law enforcement agencies. Predator drones deployed by Customs and Border Protection search for immigrants and drugs on the northern and southern borders, while metropolitan police and county sheriffs are acquiring smaller drones to assist their SWAT operations.
Under industry pressure, the Federal Aviation Administration was mandated by new Congressional legislation to adopt procedures to open US domestic airspace to private and governmental drones by 2015 and to allow police to start flying lightweight, line-of-sight drones by this summer. The new law was a major success for the new House Unmanned System Caucus and for the Association of Unmanned Vehicles Systems International, a drone industry group that works closely with the House drone caucus.
The drone freedom law also served as a wake-up call for a US public, which has been largely oblivious to advance of drones as a surveillance and law-enforcement instrument. Benjamin, who founded CodePink, warns, "As drones become an increasingly preferred form of warfare and as their presence expands at home, it is time to educate ourselves, the US public and our policymakers about drone proliferation." For Benjamin, activism needs to complement education if drone proliferation is to be subjected to the necessary accountability, transparency and oversight. "As remotely controlled warfare and spying race forward," she says, "it is also time to organize to end current abuses and to prevent the potentially widespread misuse both overseas and here at home."
Internationally, the simultaneously contentious and mutually self-serving relationship between the United States and Pakistan has lately been stuck at an impasse over routine US drone surveillance over that nation and killer drone strikes in Pakistani tribal areas. The Pakistani Parliament and public protests say the drone interventions must stop, while the Obama administration says that the UAV deployments must and will continue.
It wasn't until January of this year that the president even acknowledged the secret targeted killing missions of drones by the CIA when he insisted in the midst of rising concern of noncombatant (collateral damage) deaths that the overseas killer drones were on a "very tight leash."
"Under the Obama administration, drone strikes have escalated and expanded in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia," said Kashani. "In Pakistan alone, the Obama administration has launched six times as many drone strikes as the Bush administration, in fewer years in office, killing hundreds of innocent people and devastating families."
"Ultimately, efforts to end the expansion of US drone strikes and covert wars are not only a legal matter," Kashani said, "but a political and ethical one on which the viability of a livable future and meaningful democracy is based."
Although information is restricted and controlled, it does appear that noncombatant deaths by killer drone strikes are declining - although continuing. But security questions remain about the level of threats represented by combatants who are being targeted and constitutional questions persist about the legality of these extrajudicial killings.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may be winding down after nearly a decade. But the US military and the Obama administration are committed to the increased use of UAVs in intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and war fighting.
In January, President Obama announced a shift in US military strategy, including the shedding of "outdated Cold War systems" in favor of the high-tech instruments and conflicts of the future - including the aptly denominated "shadow wars." This evolution in military strategy, including the increased reliance on drones and special operations (and presumably a continuing pattern of extrajudicial killings by drone strikes around the globe) may, as its supporters contend, be exactly the course the US military needs to ensure national and global security.
Whether strategically right or not, this is a shift that clearly calls out for the processes of moral, ethical and legal scrutiny at all levels of government - local, national and international.
The crash of the CIA's highly sophisticated - and extremely expensive (even its price tag is secret) - US stealth Sentinel drone in Iran last December proved another wake-up call about the risks of drone interventions. The US military, intelligence agencies and counterterrorist units may be the top dogs in the drone world now - but things change, blowback happens and drones have no national loyalty. Many close observers of drone proliferation point to near complete lack of governance structures, international conventions and adequate export controls to regulate drones.
Meanwhile, Iran is busy incorporating US drone technology into its own now-extensive drone program, and China has surged into the international drone market.
Understandably, this competition concerns the US drone industry - led by the major US military contractors, including Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, General Atomics, among others.
Currently the industry - with support of the Congressional caucus - is pressuring the administration to continue relaxing the export controls on US-made drone technology to ensure that the industry keeps its market share of the fastest growing military and aviation sector. As speakers at the annual Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference in February reminded industry representatives and the attending Congressional representatives, drone competition is sparking new markets for drone detection technology, defenses against enemy drones and electronic warfare instruments designed to break drone communications with their remote piloting.
"It is vital that the debate on drones is brought to American public since US drone policy is becoming vital part of US foreign policy in conflict zones," says Shahzad Akbar, attorney with Reprieve in London and with the Pakistani Foundation for Fundamental Fights. Akbar, who is listed as a summit speaker, says that a debate about drones needs to include all stakeholders, including the US public and that's a central objective of the planned drone summit in Washington, DC.
"Central to the debate are questions about the rights of individuals, whether as objects of surveillance or targets of killing machines," says Akbar. Essentially, we are asking to what degree "we [are] ready to allow government to "usurp the rights of individuals and under exactly what circumstances?" With respect to the objectives of the drone Summit, Akbar said that the summit's organizers are working to ensure that in the United States and in other drone-deploying countries they will subject their use to the "due-process rule of law" and to "proper judicial and democratic oversight."