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Is drone war losing its fire in shadow of NSA scandals?

By   /   February 13, 2014  /   No Comments

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. — After an ambitious year marked by an explosion of privacy and accountability legislation nationwide, the drone war marches on in 2014.

But has another, more urgent privacy battle — the global snooping assault by the U.S. National Security Agency — taken some of the fire out of the anti-drone movement?

Some drone opponents worry the NSA scandal, although significant and scary, is proving to be a distraction in the push to rein in the proliferation of unmanned aerial vehicles — particularly those used for invasive and deadly purposes.

AP photo

GOODNIGHT AMERICA: An unmanned aircraft system, commonly referred to as a drone, pierces the night sky.

It would seem the momentum is slowing after a busy 2013 of legislative action, at least at the state and local level.

So far in 2014, 34 states have 131 pending unmanned aircraft system, unmanned aerial vehicle or drone bills and resolutions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Most of those bills have carried over from 2013. Hawaii, Kentucky and Indiana are among the first states to introduce new measures this year.

“So far no state has enacted a UAS law in 2014,” according to NCSL.

New Jersey legislators passed SB 2702, regulating the use of unmanned aerial vehicles. The bill was subsequently pocket vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie.

In Wisconsin, a bill introduced last summer that would restrict the use of drones in Wisconsin was expected to move through a Senate committee on Thursday, according to the bill’s Republican authors.

“I am authoring this bill to ensure Wisconsin residents continue to have their personal privacy rights protected,” said state Rep. Tyler August, R-Lake Geneva, in a press release last year. “I am concerned that technology has outpaced our state laws; therefore this legislation will guarantee our civil laws remain intact.”

A funny thing happened on the way to “bipartisan support.” The watered down version of the original legislation clears law enforcement use of drones on public lands and protects recreational use of UAVs, as long as there is no intent to infringe on privacy rights.

The amended bill also would not restrict the unmanned vehicle system industry from setting up shop in the Badger State.

“Should we preclude anyone from manufacturing these things? I don’t think so,” said state Rep. David Craig, R-Vernon, co-author of the Assembly drone bill. “I don’t want to say drones are the ‘enemies.’ It’s the application of how these are used in private citizens’ lives, that’s what needs to be regulated.”

The unmanned vehicle system industry has taken umbrage with the wide use of the term “drone.”

“The average person on the street, and even intelligent and informed people, when they think of the word ‘drone,’ they think of the military, they think hostile, they think weaponized, they think large and they think autonomous,” Michael Toscano, president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems, told Breaking Defense last year.

The point seems to be there are manifold uses for such technology, and only some of it involves spying and killing.

The deadly application of drones moved back into the public arena again this week, if temporarily, demonstrating the complicated public policy questions the aerial vehicles pose.

An American citizen and suspected member of al-Qaida who is reportedly planning attacks on U.S. targets overseas is being followed through the eyes of armed CIA drones.

“The CIA drones watching him cannot strike because he’s a U.S. citizen. The Pentagon drones that could are barred from the country where he’s hiding, and the Justice Department has not yet finished building a case against him,” the Associated Press reported this week.

“Four U.S. officials said the American suspected terrorist is in a country that refuses U.S. military action on its soil and that has proved unable to go after him. And Obama’s new policy says American suspected terrorists overseas can only be killed by the military, not the CIA, creating a policy conundrum for the White House.”

Balancing civil liberties against national security has seemed much more art than science in recent years, with drones deployed to spy, kill and destroy. The overarching concern is that basic rights have and will continue to be trampled on in the name of security.

Those anxieties have fueled an anti-drone movement populated by strange bedfellows — from liberals to libertarians, Democrats and Republicans.

“It reflects just how fundamental these issues are to the American psyche,” said Shahid Buttar, executive director of the Northampton, Mass.-based Bill of Rights Defense Committee.

Buttar, whose constitutional rights and liberties organization grew out of backlash to the U.S. Patriot Act, said his and like-minded groups are trying to make Americans see the vital connections between the abuses of the NSA and the deadly and invasive uses of drones.

“Drones do to real space what the NSA has done to cyberspace,” he said. “That is dragnet surveillance without warrants, without individual suspicious of wrongdoing, even without any particular offense.”

Constant revelations of NSA intrusions, everything from the agency’s implanted software into nearly 100,000 computers worldwide to its listening in on phone calls in the United States, have dominated news coverage and public outrage for months.

On Wednesday, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., joined Ken Cuccinelli, Virginia’s former attorney general, in announcing a class-action lawsuit against the Obama administration over the NSA’s surveillance practices.

The lawsuit names President Obama, NSA Director Keith Alexander, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and FBI Director James Comey.

The spotlight on the NSA has taken some of the glare off of the drone issue, which seemed so hot last year.

Buttar worries about the threat of dissipation in the movement.

“Ignorance, apathy and resignation are the three big threats,” he said. “Amid all of the distractions, most people don’t know the bare facts, they don’t know how flimsy our rights have become, how many agencies there are involved in monitoring our thoughts.”

Howard Kurtz, a Fox News analyst, argues that the “huge media uproar” that followed Edward Snowden’s leaked NSA documents to the Guardian and Washington Post never quite translated into a “huge wave of public outrage.”

“It was as if many people realized they’re already being tracked on Google and Facebook, indeed every time they shop, and have become resigned to it as the price of a digital society. Others felt the government needed the tracking tools to combat terrorism, and that only the bad guys need to be nervous about that,” Kurtz wrote last month.

The media followed suit.

“The NSA story, for the media, quickly morphed into the melodrama surrounding Snowden fleeing to Hong Kong and Russia, and the debate over whether he is a traitor — the kind of personality-based story that fuels endless cable segments,” Kurtz wrote. “… (T)he essential argument over government surveillance seems to have been relegated to the back burner.”

David Craig, the Wisconsin Republican lawmaker who co-authored the drone-related legislation, disagrees that the NSA story has diminished the privacy battle surrounding unmanned aerial vehicles. If anything, it further stoked the fires of public outrage, he insists.

“The NSA story keeps getting worse and worse from a private citizen’s perspective. I don’t see that dissipating whatsoever,” Craig said. “I think the intensity for our Fourth and Fifth Amendment bills continue to rise because of the mass intrusion at the federal level.”

Contact M.D. Kittle at mkittle@watchdog.org

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M.D. Kittle is national First Amendment reporter at Watchdog.org. Contact him at mkittle@watchdog.org.

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