Americans have been protesting and getting arrested at U.S. drone bases and research institutions for years, and some members of Congress are starting to respond to the pressure.
But it’s not that drones are being used to extrajudicially execute people, including Americans, in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia that has U.S. lawmakers concerned. Rather it’s the possible and probable violation of Americans’ privacy in the United States by unlawful drone surveillance that has caught the attention of legislators.
Rep. Jeff Landry, R-La., says “there is distrust amongst the people who have come and discussed this issue with me about our government. It’s raising alarm with the American public.” Based on those discussions, Landry has placed a provision in a defense spending bill that would prohibit information gathered by drones without a warrant from being used as evidence in court.
Two other legislators, Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., introduced identical bills to bar any government agency from using a drone without a warrant to “gather evidence or other information pertaining to criminal conduct or conduct in violation of a regulation.”
No one in Congress, however, has introduced legislation requiring the government to provide to a neutral judge evidence of a criminal act committed by a person to be targeted for assassination by a drone, or allowing such a person the right to defend himself against the U.S. government’s allegations.
Under President Obama’s signature national security policy, being a young male in the tribal region of Pakistan is often sufficient evidence to warrant execution. The kill committee members from the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Department of Defense act as the prosecution, judge and jury for “low-level” targets. The president, consulting his “kill list,” makes the decision on “high-value” targets, including American citizens.
Weaponizing Drones in the United States
Acknowledging that drones have killed people in other countries, Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., placed a provision in another bill that would prohibit the Department of Homeland Security from arming its drones. (Homeland Security operates surveillance drones on the borders with Mexico and Canada.)
Holt may wish to extend the prohibition against arming drones to local law enforcement. The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office in Texas used a Homeland Security grant to purchase a $300,000, 50-pound ShadowHawk helicopter drone that can be equipped with a 40 mm grenade launcher and a 12-gauge shotgun. When the sheriff’s office announced that the drone would be used by the county’s SWAT team, a spokesman said there were no plans to arm it but left open the possibility that deputies might decide to adapt the drone to fire tear gas canisters and rubber bullets.
The Drone Caucus Wants to Open Civilian Airspace
Getting their legislation passed by their colleagues in Congress will be an uphill battle for the above-mentioned lawmakers concerned about privacy and the need for search warrants.
As a result of intense lobbying by the drone industry, headed by two of the biggest manufacturers, General Atomics and Lockheed Martin, Congress formed the Unmanned Systems Caucus that now has 60 members. The group’s website states that its mission is “to educate members of Congress and the public on the strategic, tactical and scientific value of unmanned systems; actively support further development and acquisition of more systems; and to more effectively engage the civilian aviation community on unmanned system use and safety.”
The drone caucus successfully passed legislation this year that requires the Federal Aviation Administration to identify six places across the country by 2013 that will be used for testing how to safely fly drones in the same area as traditional planes. The regulator has until Sept. 30, 2015, to formulate a plan to integrate up to 30,000 drones into U.S. airspace.
The dedication of activists and the modest efforts of a few concerned members of Congress have so far failed to halt the flight of drones from the battlefield to our homeland.