When Drone Warfare Comes Home

Tom Barry raises important points in his comments. Drones are proliferating not only as instruments of war but as tools of law enforcement and government surveillance here at home. Just as drone warfare is evading international legal standards, domestic uses of this technology are proceeding without consideration of the legal rights of citizens.

Drones are being used by dozens of police departments and federal agencies. A recent Wall Street Journal article reports increasing concerns about safety issues and privacy rights.[1] Pilots and aircraft owners are worried about drone aircraft straying into commercial flight paths. The Federal Aviation Administration is developing guidelines to regulate drone flights and integrate their use into the national air traffic control system.

The proliferation of drone systems raises concerns about government surveillance and threats to privacy. Checks and balances are certainly needed, as Barry notes, but we also need to make sure that citizens have a say in determining how these systems are used and when and where they are deployed.

Very fitting is Barry’s quote from the nonprofit group Drone Wars UK: “we need a serious, public – and fully informed – debate on all these issues to ensure there is full public accountability for their use.” That’s true here in the United States as well. Hats off to Cato Unbound for helping to spark that debate.

Among the questions that need to be addressed here are the following:

  • Should police departments and other public and private agencies be required to have permission and to provide public notice when drones are deployed over residential neighborhoods and designated communities?
  • What guarantees do we have that privacy rights will be respected and that citizens will be protected from warrantless surveillance?
  • What happens to the video images collected by drone aircraft? Should the information be deleted after a certain time? If it is retained, who has control, and what guarantees will we have that the images are not misused?

These and related questions point to the need for democratic oversight and public accountability. Before these aircraft start buzzing constantly over our heads we need to agree on ground rules for their use and make sure that they do not threaten our safety or undermine our basic rights.

[1] Ana Campoy, “The Law’s New Eye in the Sky,” Wall Street Journal, December 13, 2011, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB100014240529702043190045770888913617820…

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • David Cortright argues that drones are making warfare cheaper and less visceral — for us. This may sound like a good thing, but it also means that we may be drawn into more wars, and we may inflict more harm on innocent bystanders. This collateral harm is not only immoral, it’s also against our best interests, because it encourages terrorist retribution against us.

Response Essays

  • Benjamin Wittes and Ritika Singh argue that drones certainly do increase the distance at which deadly force can be delivered. In this they resemble the large majority of weapons that have ever been developed. Humanitarians, they add, should welcome drones’ precision, which makes possible a new level of caution in avoiding civilian bystanders. They conclude that the question is not whether the United States can prevent drones from proliferating. It is whether the United States will lead or follow in this new field of military technology.

  • Daniel Goure argues that if drones are making warfare more deadly, it’s certainly not showing up in the aggregate numbers. Casualties and warfare itself have declined substantially in recent years—and, he suggests, drones might be one part of the reason why. Drones remain a small part of our overall military forces to date. They are overwhelmingly used for nonviolent purposes such as surveillance. When they do exert deadly force, they often accomplish objectives that would have been impossible without them, barring a full-scale invasion. Legitimate concerns do exist over specific acts perpetrated via drone technology, but there is at least a plausible case that drones in general are making warfare less deadly, not more.

  • Tom Barry argues that the U.S. Congress and other policymakers have uncritically accepted drone warfare as both effective and cheap, with little regard to its actual costs and benefits. Defense contractors obviously stand to gain a great deal, and they have recently been lobbying to ease restrictions on drone technology export controls. The United States should lead the way in forming international agreements to prevent the proliferation of these high-tech weapons. At home, the proliferation of drones in drug enforcement and other local law enforcement tasks is also a worrying trend.