Traverse City Record-Eagle


Drone On Mr. President

Troy Keith, The Armchair ConservativeRegular readers will not be surprised to hear that I have some disagreements with many of Mr. Obama’s policy decisions but the president currently finds himself in the awkward pre-election position of being simultaneously perceived as both too liberal and too conservative depending upon the voter’s perspective.  Our continued role in the eleven year Afghanistan war is no exception.

After heavily campaigning against current policies in 2008, the administration has doubled down on Guantanamo Bay and our ongoing practice of indefinite detention.  Civil libertarians remain incensed by the president’s extension of the renditions program (outsourcing torture), targeted assassinations, questionable provisions in the NDAA and the enhancement of the controversial Patriot Act.

Regardless of ideology, nearly all people agree on one thing when it comes to Mr. Obama’s more hawkish endeavors, he’s exceptionally good at destroying both people and property with swarms of unmanned drones currently flying the unfriendly skies throughout the Middle East. To his credit, this is a far more efficient use of America’s technological advantage in the region but many critics are concerned about the effect of dehumanizing modern warfare and the eventual impact this may have on our willingness to pursue non-military solutions in the future.

Despite the conspicuous absence of daily body counts in the press, both the casualty list and the price tag of our Middle Eastern incursion continue to grow.  According to CNS News, 70% of the total casualties in Afghanistan have occurred under President Obama’s watch.  I can’t help but wonder what happened to that little group of anti-war protesters that used to gather on the parkway in Traverse City?

According to the National Priorities Project, the Bush administration spent a paltry $43.5 billion on the Afghanistan war in 2008 compared to Mr. Obama’s much more respectable $122 billion last year alone.  This kinder, gentler and infinitely more nuanced approach, is now pushing a total expenditure of half a trillion dollars with daily spending in the neighborhood of $330 million.  Readers who love the National Debt Clock may find the Cost of War website interesting as well.

Given these sobering statistics, the increased use of unmanned drones would be a logical course of action as long as we remain committed to this questionable conflict.  At a cost between $4 million and $36.8 million, the average military drone is not a small investment but ultimately they offer many advantages compared to traditional reconnaissance or seek and destroy missions with actual boots on the ground. Under President Bush, the U.S. launched 52 drone strikes in Pakistan. Operating from secret bases throughout the region, the Obama administration has dramatically increased that number to nearly 280 so far, along with dozens more in Yemen and Somalia.

As reported by The Washington Post,

“Other commanders in chief have presided over wars with far higher casualty counts. But no president has ever relied so extensively on the secret killing of individuals to advance the nation’s security goals.

“The rapid expansion of the drone program has blurred long-standing boundaries between the CIA and the military. Lethal operations are increasingly assembled a la carte, piecing together personnel and equipment in ways that allow the White House to toggle between separate legal authorities that govern the use of lethal force.”

The Air Force’s MQ-1 Predator is probably the military’s best known drone, logging over 1,000,000 combat hours, but the new MQ-9 Reaper “Hunter-Killer” surpasses its predecessor in just about every ability with a 50,000 foot operational ceiling, a payload capacity of 1.5 tons and a variety of armaments including laser guided bombs, sidewinder missiles and numerous anti-personnel upgrades.

Drones are not permitted to fly in U.S. Air space without FAA approval but at least 266 active testing permits have already been granted for domestic operations and these UAVs are already in use by law enforcement agencies throughout the country.  According to the Washington Times, provisions in the FAA Reauthorization Act, recently signed by the president, could allow as many as 30,000 drones to be patrolling our skies by 2020.  The FAA itself predicts 10,000 drones in the air within 5 years.

Steven Aftergood of the Project on Government Secrecy comments,

“There are serious policy questions on the horizon about privacy and surveillance, by both government agencies and commercial entities.”

According to an AP story in The Air Force Times,

“Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of a House Homeland Security subcommittee, complained that no federal agency has been willing to tackle the issue of drones and privacy. He said Department of Homeland Security officials refused a request to testify at the hearing, saying regulating civilian use of drones wasn’t the department’s responsibility.”

Insect drones are currently in use today by military and covert personnel but nothing as sophisticated as the CGI image below (at least that we know of).  Future “mosquito drones” may well be capable of taking DNA samples, injecting RFID chips (or poisons) as well transmitting audio and video to remote locations.

Our government does many things that average citizens might disapprove of and there’s probably not enough Prilosec in the world for most of us to stomach the dirty, closed door details of war and espionage, but privacy is something we can all appreciate.  In the age of Eschelon and the Patriot Act, with bunkered government servers logging every email and keystroke, it’s often something we take for granted – or at least willingly cede in trade for our “protection”.  It’s the cost of freedom in the modern age but this is a slippery slope and we’re currently standing up to our ankles in olive oil.

I have a great deal of respect for Charles Krauthammer and when he comments on such issues, we would do well to at least pay attention.  Speaking recently on Fox News about drones flying in U.S. air space, Krauthammer said,

“I’m going to go hard left on you here, I’m going ACLU, I don’t want regulations, I don’t want restrictions, I want a ban on this. Drones are instruments of war. The Founders had a great aversion to any instruments of war, the use of the military inside even the United States. It didn’t like standing armies, it has all kinds of statutes of using the army in the country.

“A drone is a high-tech version of an old army and a musket. It ought to be used in Somalia to hunt bad guys but not in America. I don’t want to see it hovering over anybody’s home. Yes, you can say we have satellites, we’ve got Google Street View and London has a camera on every street corner but that’s not an excuse to cave in on everything else and accept a society where you’re always under — being watched by the government. This is not what we want.

“I would say that you ban it under all circumstances and I would predict, I’m not encouraging, but I am predicting that the first guy who uses a Second Amendment weapon to bring a drone down that’s been hovering over his house is going to be a folk hero in this country.”

It’s clear that this technology will be with us for some time to come and we should be thankful that American lives and initiatives will be saved overseas.  As with all great scientific advancements, the potential for misuse often equals or exceeds the benefit to society.  Drone on Mr. President, but let’s take the necessary precautions to ensure that the deck remains stacked against our enemies rather than our citizens.

Just love those laser guided bombs
They’re really great
For righting wrongs
You hit the target
And win the game
From bars 3,000 miles away
3,000 miles away
We play the game
With the bravery of being out of range

Roger Waters, The Bravery Of Being Out Of Range

  • Henry

    The Bravery Of Being Out Of Range…I’ll bet the family of that young marine just buried in Kingsley wishes he could have done his job while being out of range.
    I am surprised that this Texas politcian doesn’t see the advantage of drones for border patrol. Maybe if the Tea-baggers were in favor of using them that way he would be too  I guess it’s unfair to target drug smugglers unless an agent’s life is put at risk, right? Oh, and what about some second ammendmet type taking out a surveillance helicopter and killing the pilot…still a hero?
    Civilian casualities happen in all wars. In WW2 we deliberately bombed civilians. (They are not targeted in drone strikes.)The wisdom was that if enough civilians were killed the other side would lose heart and quit. It didm’t work very well but it wasn’t for lack of trying. We firebombed Japanese cities killing more civilians than were eventually killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.Then Uncle Harry dropped the really big ones and the Japanese quit.The Japanes had reserved 5000 Kamikaze planes for the invasion. That’s five planes for each lightly armed troop ship. Do you think any of us scheduled to go were upset with Uncle Harry?
    As for privacy rights: There are GPS devices that can track your car reporting where it goes, where it stops and for how long and how fast it gets where it’s going. These are in use NOW and some people are complaining about the possible use of drones to invade privacy. Politics!
    Your computer tracks every website you visit. Your phone number is sent to any politician paying for it…and you worry about drones?
    I certainly agree that we ought to get out of Afghanistan now. I also believe we should continue to make the bad guys sweat with drones. The rest of this just sounds like another anti Obama rant.

    • Troy Keith

      It seems a little naive not to be concerned about these privacy issues in this day and age.  The media was certainly aflame with the warrantless wiretapping frenzy just a few short years ago – now it’s ok?  You also didn’t speak to Gitmo, the NDAA or the Renditions program.. also OK as long as Bush isn’t at the helm?  That’s often the rub with these issues – as long as you’re comfortable with the current leadership, then there’s seldom any concern but what about the next administration?  Despite the best of intentions, the foundation we lay now may ultimately form the walls of our prison if appropriate steps are not taken at this stage of the game.

      I have absolutely no problem with drones patrolling our borders and being used in the event of a real (not perceived or manufactured) emergency at home but once this door is opened even the smallest crack, it will never be shut again.  As with the Patriot Act, when I hear reassuring suggestions that only the criminals need to be wary (the rest of us have nothing to hide etc.) I can’t help but think of Germany or Russia in decades past.

      You say “Your computer tracks every website you visit. Your phone number is sent to any politician paying for it…and you worry about drones?” but I did mention Eschelon and the data collection that’s currently underway – it’s a huge concern, unless of course, “you have nothing to hide”..

      I’m not sure what bombing Japan or targeting civilians has to do with these privacy issues but when I hear talk about targeting US citizens for assassination I have to raise an eyebrow.  Making the bad guys sweat is fine but I’m still uncomfortable with the thought of widespread UAV use at home – maybe I’m just paranoid.

  • Henry

    You say it’s naive not to be concerned about privacy issues. What did I write that leads you to think I’m not concerned about privacy issues? My point was, and is, there are more important privacy issues, GPS Trackers etc. than drones. So this means I’m not concerned about privacy issues?? Curious logic.
    The issue of civilian bombing has nothing to do with privacy issues but has everything to do with complaints of collateral civilian deaths associated with drone attacks.
    Again, much of this angst about drones is misplaced compared with other privacy concerns and, in my view, is largely political.
    Oh yes, I’m not “comfortable with the current leadership” but I’m a lot less comfortable with the prospect of Romney’s leadership. That looks like a voyage into the great unknown!
    Sorry, I’ve no more time to back and forth this.

    • Troy Keith

      Yes, speaking generally, it’s naive to just let these things pass by (insert favorite reference/moral/fable).  GPS is just one example – before we know it, we’ll have speeding tickets mailed to us (or automatically deducted from our accounts) and we’ll have the “appropriate” mileage taxes applied each year at the Sec. of State.  I guess some would say that’s a good thing.. The smart phone that everyone is glued to will help to usher in many of these changes – as will social media with our addiction to the illusion of connectivity.

      I don’t see the political aspect with being concerned about the drones, nor the collateral damage issue.  War is war and it makes little difference if the bomb/missile comes from a drone, ship or plane.

      I’m not sure what Romney would do for us at this point – he seems mired in the political game.. little actual ideas and lots of rhetoric these days but I’m also convinced that we couldn’t take another four years of this “fundamental transformation of America”.

  • Bob

    Me I like the US to have the best military drones in the world.  I would prefer they only be used as weapons where congress has declared war or in case of imminent threat.  As to use of the Military (drones included) within the US the Congress has the power to do so but I would prefer that we do not, and I would hope that there will always be patriots willing to sacrifice their own lives & reputations to make it public.

    What is public, and what is private?  I think we have a long tradition that within the walls of one’s home there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.  Beyond those walls however I think things become public.  If Jeff decides to urinate in the bushes in front of his house he takes the responsibility to make sure he is alone on himself and if he fails in that he won’t get much sympathy if he gets charged with public indecency.   If I decide to be a busybody and start taking down the license plate numbers and speed ( ) of every car that goes by the front of my house in a notebook no one has had their privacy violated.   What is special about a drone?  How is it any different from any other device used for recording taken of public areas?  The genie will not go back in the bottle and the cost of drones and recording will only go down.  I can think of numerous beneficial uses of information gathered by them.  Farm management, real estate, security, construction estimating, fire prevention planning, and these just come at a moment’s thought.  Sure there are places such as public restrooms that are exceptions, but I think we have lots of precedent for those.

    I respect Mr. Krauthammer’s intellect even if I often do not concur with his neocon views of what policy should be.  On this I am all for a complete ban on any government surveillance that would penetrate the walls of a home without judicial oversight. 

    As much as the NSA secret spy stuff I resent the public stuff like DOE-OIG, DHS, and TSA that have the clear and understood intent of conversion of the populace of this nation from Citizen to Subject.  

  • jeff4

    Eavesdrop on my wifi? they learn i like blogs and fishing and national parks
    See through my walls?  they see me typing a lot, or at worst, they see me naked and it kills them.
    See through forest canopy?  they see nature making love
    Hear with microphones via window vibrations?  they hear my phone ring and tv and get bored

    no big deal !!!!

    • Troy Keith

      I guess I’m a little more skeptical than that.. Reminds me a bit of the old Niemoller piece:
      First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a communist; Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist; Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist; Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew; Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak out for me.

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