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Drone war: Battle over UAVs hits Boston’s ground zero

By   /   April 19, 2013  /   News  /   2 Comments

DIVIDED: Retired Navy officer Phil Frank waves to cars entering Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, home of the Predator and Reaper drones, in March to show his support for troops as members of the Nevada Desert Experience group hold an anti-drone demonstration.

DIVIDED: Retired Navy officer Phil Frank waves to cars entering Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, home of the Predator and Reaper drones, in March to show his support for troops as members of the Nevada Desert Experience group hold an anti-drone demonstration.


By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON  – You’ve got to hand it to Shahid Buttar.

Hours after bombs blew up the Boston Marathon and the United States’ sense of security, the executive director of the Northampton, Mass.-based Bill of Rights Defense Committee predicted that somebody would posit the belief that unmanned aircraft – a.k.a. drones – would have helped identify and track the killers.

“I do fear the events in Boston, that someone will say, ‘If we would have had a drone over the finish line we would be able to track back the footage and see who it was. It will not surprise me when it happens,” said Buttar, whose organization was founded 12 years ago to fight the USA Patriot Act and what the committee sees as a ceaseless wave of assaults on civil rights.

Perhaps Buttar wasn’t surprised that, on the same day he made his prediction to Wisconsin Reporter, the trade group that represents the booming drone business posed the hypothetical question.

“UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems) could be an important tool in the tool kit for first responders in the event of an emergency,” Michael Toscano, president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International told U.S. News & World Report the day after the bombings that killed three people and wounded more than 170. “Whether it is in response to a natural disaster or a tragedy like we saw in Boston, UAS can be quickly deployed to provide first responders with critical situational awareness in areas too dangerous or difficult for manned aircraft to reach.”


Drones: Are they surveillance stalking, unmanned killers, or welcome technology to make American lives more secure? U.S. citizens are really just beginning to wrestle with such questions.

While drones may have been able to get a read on suspects on the ground, the thought of the ever ubiquitous, ever invasive drone tracking the actions of American citizens is enough to make civil libertarians – or anyone with a low threshold to the creep factor – come down with a case of Big Brotheritis.

“It certainly is something that is contradictory as far as human rights and civil liberties are concerned,” said Nick Mottern, of KnowDrones.com, an educational organization advocating against the use of weaponized drones and drone surveillance. “You’ll be keeping hundreds of thousands of people under continual surveillance hours and hours at a time.”

Drone war

The use of drones in battle and surveillance has turned into a political war at home. Last month, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky, spent almost 13 hours on the Senate floor in a filibuster, which held up a confirmation vote on John O. Brennan’s nomination to head the Central Intelligence Agency. Brennan was confirmed on a 63-34 vote, but Paul struck a nerve with fellow Republicans and a few of the more liberal Democrats in the Senate as he pressed the Obama administration for details on its use of drone strikes.

A leaked memo in February noted a program of extrajudicial targeted killing. In at least one case, an American citizen was targeted, according to the memo.

“To be bombed in your sleep? There’s nothing American about that,” Paul said during the filibuster. “There’s nothing constitutional about that.”

Unmanned Arial Systems is spreading its wings, well beyond its more high profile use in the hunt for terrorists in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. A growing line-up of government agencies, from law enforcement to universities, have applied with the Federal Aviation Administration seeking the certification required to operate drones.

In a Freedom of Information Act request, privacy rights watchdog Electronic Frontier Foundation learned that 81 public entities had applied for UAS permits through October 2012. The list includes the Arlington (Texas) Police Department, the FBI, Grand Forks (North Dakota) County Sheriff’s Department, NASA, the Ohio Department of Transportation, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

UW_Madison wants to attach a camera to a remotely-controlled plane to take “low-altitude pictures” for a river restoration project, according to the application data obtained by EFF.

New technology

Drone proponents say there’s nothing nefarious about the automated devices, many used for academic reasons.

“To me, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Unmanned drones are just another technology,” said Benjamin Friedman, research fellow in Defense and Homeland Security Studies at Cato Institute.

Friedman certainly is no drone apologist, and the libertarian Cato Institute is no friend of infringements on individual liberty. But Friedman points to helicopters, dashboard cameras and other technology deployed by law enforcement to track criminal activity – technology that has become standard and accepted among Americans.

It’s not necessarily the proliferation of drones that’s the problem, Friedman said; it’s the concern government agencies could cross a line between acceptable surveillance and warrantless snooping.

As U.S. News and World Report pointed out this week, 35 states have considered legislation that would put limits on police drone use. Idaho and Virginia have enacted drone-limiting legislation, but the Idaho law includes an exception for “the purpose of taking photographs of gatherings of the public on public or private land,” such as marathons.

Local law enforcement drone programs in parts of the country have come under fire.

Following backlash from privacy advocates and average citizens, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and Police Chief John Diaz recently scrapped the deployment of two unmanned surveillance helicopters.

“We agreed that it was time to end the unmanned aerial vehicle program, so that SPD can focus its resources on public safety and the community building work that is the department’s priority,” McGinn said in a statement.

Drone power

The genie, though, may be out of the bottle, in large part, drone critics contend, because of big money backing the industry.

Some estimates peg the commercial drone market in the Land of the Free at hundreds of millions of dollars in the coming years, should the FAA expand use. The FAA Reauthorization Act orders the agency to flush out regulations for testing and licensing of commercial drones by 2015. The FAA has projected some 30,000 unmanned aerial systems could be in use nationwide by 2020.

A 2011 Powerpoint presentation produced by the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems’ Michael Toscano broke down the emerging domestic marketplace. Among the points raised in the presentation, obtained by Republic Report, the trade group states:

  • The drone industry eagerly anticipates civil drone use, including use of drones for suspect tracking by law enforcement, will soon eclipse military use of drones.
  • Under a section called “Challenges facing UAS,” the group lists “Civil Liberties.”

The association did not return a call from Wisconsin Reporter.

Why, the future’s so bright the drone industry’s got to wear shades. That seems to be the assessment of the Congressional Research Service, which, in a January 2013 report, noted “(UAS) represent a bright spot for the technology-intensive aerospace manufacturing sector.”

“Numerous forecasts project that U.S. and global UAS markets will experience strong growth during the next 10 years,” the report summary notes. “A forecast of global UAS demand by the Teal Group shows worldwide annual spending on research, development, testing, and evaluation (RDT&E) and procurement rising from $6.6 billion in 2013 to $11.4 billion in 2022.”  Total spending for the decade is projected to amount to $89.1 billion.

The report does note that military and civil government agencies will likely be the “predominant customers for an extended period while such systems are integrated into the U.S. National Airspace System.”

Toscano, in his blog, noted the varied accomplishments of the drones in 2011, from unmanned systems at work doing nuclear waste cleanup and monitoring in Japan to assisting the attack that took down Public Enemy No. 1, Osama bin Laden.

Self-imposed ‘surveillance state’

It’s not like there wasn’t surveillance at the marathon.

The FBI on Thursday released pictures and a 30-second video of two male suspects in the case.

Cato’s Friedman said Americans, through smartphones and constant streams of video, have voluntarily turned their country into a surveillance state.

But there’s a heavy price to pay for ever-expanding surveillance, drone opponent Nick Mottern contends. Perhaps the first casualty, he said, is reason.

“In my view, it’s a childlike belief that you can have absolute security all the time,” he said. “It’s impossible to do enough surveillance or have enough police or soldiers so you can feel absolutely safe all of the time.”

Demonstrations against drones

Taking a page from the Occupy Movement, KnowDrones.com has scheduled “April Days of Action – A Political Uprising to Stop Drone Spying and Killing.” The organization scheduled protests earlier this month at drone manufacturing facilities, protested in San Diego at the factory of General Atomics & Affiliated Companies, and plans to demonstrate at Air Force and National Guard bases around the country that control drone programs.

A March and work on U.S. Drone quilt project, is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday in Madison beginning on the library mall and terminating at the capitol, according to No Drones Wisconsin.

Contact Kittle at [email protected]



M.D. Kittle is bureau chief of Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment Reporter for Watchdog.org. Kittle is a 25-year veteran of print, broadcast and online media. He is the recipient of several awards for journalism excellence from The Associated Press, Inland Press, the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, and others. He is also a member of Investigative Reporters & Editors. Kittle's extensive series on Wisconsin's unconstitutional John Doe investigations was the basis of a 2014 documentary on Glenn Beck's TheBlaze. His work has been featured in Town Hall, Fox News, NewsMax, and other national publications, and his reporting has been cited by news outlets nationwide. Kittle is a fill-in talk show host on the Jay Weber Show and the Vicki McKenna Show in Milwaukee and Madison.

  • Jack Lohman

    Drones or TSA frisks at events are costly, but I’d be okay with either if the politicians made the decision WITHOUT getting a piece of the action!

  • patrickf

    The government most certainly does abuse power. They have proven it when looking at the U.S. Patriot Act and the warrant less spying on ordinary citizens. If you give them the power to spy, you will soon see them patrolling American skies with Hellfire Missiles. Do you want to wait for them to start using them?