The United States of Drones where the surveillance state operates by remote control

11/02/2015 10:45

by Dave Gonigam
We have to apologize early. We've been on the drone beat for several days in The 5. We can't help it. We've been asking everyone who'll discuss it with us: What is it about these faceless threats that bothers people so much? Drones don't kill people, people kill people.

Maybe it's because the tool can be used with relative anonymity or accountability. Maybe it's the fact the president and his top advisers review their "targeted strikes" overseas during weekly meetings they casually refer to as "Terror Tuesdays"...

Do you live anywhere near these locations?

We do.

The map represents 81 "public entities" -- law enforcement agencies, universities, even an Indian tribal agency -- that have received drone authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA came clean only because the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) demanded the list via the Freedom of Information Act.

"Even the smallest drones can carry a host of surveillance equipment," says the EFF, "from video cameras and thermal imaging to GPS tracking and cellphone eavesdropping tools. They can also be equipped with advanced forms of radar detection, license plate cameras and facial recognition. And as previous reporting from PBS and Slate shows, surveillance tools, like the military's development of gigapixel technology capable of 'tracking people and vehicles across an entire city,' are improving rapidly."

Drones were put in the air to look for Chris Dorner, the former Los Angeles cop who'd murdered three people and threatened to kill other cops and their family members. Some media outlets claimed that this was the first time an American has been hunted by drones on U.S. soil.

Not so.


In 2011, a drone was deployed in the middle of nowhere in North Dakota to catch someone wanted for... well, to call it cattle rustling would be generous. Six cows wandered onto Rodney Brossart's property. He refused to return them. Police managed to escalate the situation into an armed standoff that lasted 16 hours before it ended peacefully. During that time, they called in a drone from the Department of Homeland Security.

"Grand Forks SWAT team chief Bill Macki said in an interview that the drone was used to ensure Brossart and his family members, who were also charged, didn't leave the farm and were unarmed during the arresting raid," according to an account at U.S. News. Brossart's lawyer demanded the case be dismissed on grounds of "warrantless use of [an] unmanned militarylike surveillance aircraft." The courts didn't buy it.

One place you won't find on the map above is Charlottesville, Va.

In 2013, the city council imposed a two-year ban on drones and forbade the municipal government from buying any drones. "It's our hope that the rest of the country will follow Charlottesville's lead in establishing clear limits on the use of drone technology, especially by law enforcement agencies," says John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute -- the civil liberties nonprofit that calls Charlottesville home.

"Our Founders had no conception of things that would fly over them at night and peer into their backyards and send signals back to a home base," says Virginia State Sen. A. Donald McEachin. He's sponsoring a bill that would take Charlottesville's two-year moratorium statewide. It passed both houses of Virginia's legislature.

Seattle has done away with its existing drone program after protesters thronged a 2013 public meeting. "The vehicles will be returned to the vendor," promises Mayor Mike McGinn. Anti-drone legislation is on the docket this year in at least nine states. It appears to making the most headway in Florida.

But the real battle is at the federal level.  In 2012, the president signed HR 658 -- a bill that authorizes 30,000 drones to swarm the skies over the United States. Now there are early signs some members of Congress are having second thoughts.

"Obama's appointment of John O. Brennan to lead the CIA touched off some of the congressional commotion over drones," reports Freedom Outpost newspaper Roll Call. "As the top White House counterterrorism and homeland security adviser, Brennan has guided the administration's drone strike policies."  If there's any time that public pressure on Washington will have the most effect, it's now.

If "we the people" stand any chance at reining in the drones, it's now... while the topic is hot in Washington. Next year, next month, even next week might be too late...pass it along via email or Facebook or Twitter to as many friends as you can.

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