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Military Surveillance Blimps to Hover Over East Coast

Revelation prompts outcry as well as hopes 'to relate and connect people in Baltimore to folks in Kandahar'

Sarah Lazare, staff writer

The U.S. Army will fly giant surveillance blimps with the capacity to track a broad swath of the U.S. east coast starting this October, the Washington Post revealed Friday.

News that this tracking and surveillance technology—used by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan—will be deployed domestically is now sparking public outcry.

"Yet another stark example of the expanding 'War at Home,' this surveillance blimp is both a handy ad for Raytheon's spy technology and also a lifeline for the long worn-out narrative of the Global War On Terror," said Ali Issa, organizer for the War Resisters League, in an interview with Common Dreams

Known as aerostats, these aircraft will hover 10,000 feet in the air above Army-owned land 45 miles northeast of Washington, D.C..

The blimp, though tethered to the ground, will have the ability to see airborne objects from up to 340 miles away and surface vehicles up to 140 miles away, giving them a view "as far south as Richmond, as far west as Cumberland, Md., and as far north as Staten Island," reports the Washington Post.

Army officials say these objects will be in place for a three-year trial period of the 'Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System' (JLENS), with the stated goal of detecting cruise missiles or enemy aircraft. Yet, Army officials have refused to rule out equipping the aerostats with powerful cameras and infrared sensors, according to the Post.

Similar aerostats, often equipped with highly sophisticated cameras, have been used as tools of surveillance in Iraq, Afghanistan and along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Manufacturers tout the unmatched spying capabilities of these aircraft.

“When you need persistent surveillance in a particular area, there is no better solution than the aerostat because it’s there all the time,” said Ron Bendlin, the president of TCOM — the company hired by Raytheon to build the aerostats, in an interview with the Post.

Civil liberties groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and Electronic Frontier Foundation promptly denounced the blatant use of military-grade surveillance technology at a time of public outrage at NSA spying.

“That’s the kind of massive persistent surveillance we’ve always been concerned about with drones,” said Jay Stanley, a privacy expert for the ACLU, in an interview with the Post. “It’s part of this trend we’ve seen since 9/11, which is the turning inward of all of these surveillance technologies.”

The JLENS revelation follows the announcement last month that commercial drones will be tested at public institutions across the United States as part of an FAA plan to integrate them into U.S. airspace.

Hundreds of public institutions, many of them law and border enforcement, already fly drones in the U.S. for purposes including aerial surveillance.

"Like many of the Pentagon's toys that are now creeping into everyday life in the U.S. though, [the surveillance blimps] also provide chances to relate and connect people in Baltimore to folks in Kandahar so that we can roll back militarism where ever it appears," said Issa.


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