By Dustin Hurst | Watchdog.org
HELENA – Listening to U.S. Senator Jon Tester‘s allies tell it, Senate challenger Republican Denny Rehberg is the king of privacy-invading drones and black helicopters.
In fact, Tester’s own record shows he actively supported drone development in Montana.
As this heated and expensive Montana U.S. Senate election runs its course, Tester and two allied spending groups, Citizens for Strength and Security and Montana Hunters and Anglers Action!, continually cast Rehberg as Big Brother’s lieutenant, a champion of the modern police and surveillance state.
Citizens for Strength and Security went so far as to suggest that Rehberg, should he win the U.S. Senate race, would deploy drones to spy on ordinary Montanans.
Their likely goal: to siphon off libertarian support for Rehberg.
The senator aided the Center for Remote Integration, a consortium of Montana interests, including university and aviation industry stakeholders, which is working to develop drone technology for commercial uses.
State Sen. Ryan Zinke, R-Whitefish, heads the groups, saying he’s pushing for drone technology development for economic reasons. Not only is it an up-and-coming industry, he says, but small businesses and local governments can use drones to optimize farming, spot wildfire hotspots or detect geologic patterns critical to mining operations.
As the industry grows, the federal government is examining how to safely regulate drone flights. Part of that examination includes the creation of six federally authorized drone-testing areas. Though the areas wouldn’t receive federal funding, the six designations mean drone-related jobs — lots of them.
According to Salon, Ohio, Florida and Colorado are among the state applicants, and some of the heavies in the aviation industry — think Boeing and Northrop Grumman — are in the running for federal test sites.
“We need the jobs,” Zinke told Watchdog.org. “They’re going to create green, high-tech jobs.”
The center turned to Tester and Democrat Max Baucus, Montana’s senior senator, for help in preparing a Federal Aviation Administration testing-zone application.
“I believe there is so much potential for Montana to lead the way in this emerging billion-dollar industry,” Baucus wrote in a 2011 letter to Zinke and CRI. “Our troops rely on this type of technology every day and there is enormous future potential in border security, agriculture, and wildlife and predator management.”
The solicitation eventually flamed out when Zinke and CRI realized Montana lacks the adequate mix of technological infrastructure, corporate diversity or resources the feds want in a testing area.
And Rehberg, the man Tester’s allies say is obsessed with drones? “I’ve talked to him,” Zinke said, “But he’s not been aggressive either way.”
While Zinke and CRI focus on the commercial uses, drone technology is still a favorite of the Department of Defense. The 2012 military budget includes more than $1 billion for unmanned drone procurement, and more is expected in coming years as the armed forces search for methods to decrease human casualties.
Zinke says fears that drones will invade privacy — peering into homes and backyards — are completely overblown. “There’s a few people who think drones will spy on people, which they won’t,” Zinke explained.
Zinke acknowledges that “drone technology is neither good nor bad” in itself. “It’s what you do with it.”
Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union take issue with the emergence of drone technology, urging governments to enact privacy-protecting restrictions for drones, both civil and commercial.
“The bottom line is: domestic drones are potentially extremely powerful surveillance tools, and that power — like all government power — need to be subject to checks and balances,” ACLU senior analyst Jay Stanley wrote earlier this year. “We hope that Congress will carefully consider the privacy implications that this technology can lead to.”
Tester’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Contact Dustin Hurst via email at Dustin@Watchdog.org. You might also catch him on Twitter using the @DustinHurst handle.