We refer, of course, to Senator Rand Paul's 13-hour performance on the floor of the Senate, railing against the Obama Administration's policy that would allow the domestic use of drones to eliminate perceived threats. While Attorney General Eric Holder has stated there are no plans to use killer UAVs on American soil, recently disclosed documents indicate that the White House clearly believes it has that right.
And that scenario may not be as implausible as some believe. As we've noted in this blog, the use of drones by civilian law enforcement--at the federal, state and local levels--is growing rapidly. Organizations like Customs and Border Protection already use UAVs to monitor traffic along our border with Mexico, and on several occasions, they've "loaned" out the surveillance capability to other police agencies. As Kimberly Dvorak of the Washington Guardian reported last December:
Far from the killing fields of Afghanistan, a Predator drone was summoned into action last year to spy on a North Dakota farmer who allegedly refused to return a half dozen of his neighbor's cows that had strayed onto his pastures.
The farmer had become engaged in a standoff with the Grand Forks police SWAT team and the sheriff's department. So the local authorities decided to call on their friends at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to deploy a multimillion dollar, unarmed drone to surveil the farmer and his family.
The little-noticed August 2011 incident at the Lakota, N.D., ranch, which ended peacefully, was a watershed moment for Americans: it was one of the first known times an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) owned by the U.S. government was used against civilians for local police work.
Since then, the Washington Guardian has confirmed, DHS and its Customs and Border Protection agency have deployed drones -- originally bought to guard America's borders -- to assist local law enforcement and other federal agencies on several occasions.
The practice is raising questions inside and outside government about whether federal officials may be creating an ad-hoc, loan-a-drone program without formal rules for engagement, privacy protection or taxpayer reimbursements. The drones used by CPB can cost between $15 million and $34 million each to buy, and have hourly operational costs as well.
While many of the law enforcement drones are smaller than the Predators operated by DHS, some can light armaments, along with sensor packages. Now, consider a tactical situation like the recent shootout involving former LAPD officer Christopher Dorner. Holed up in a cabin in the California mountains, Dorner shot two sheriff's deputies (one fatally) before the building caught fire and he killed himself.
Suppose for a moment that local police agencies or the California Highway Patrol had an armed drone over Dorner's hideout. Would they consider dropping a munition on the cabin instead of sending in a SWAT team, knowing the suspect was heavily armed and capable of taking the lives of more officers if they stormed the building? Under those circumstances, it wouldn't be hard to pull the trigger, letting the cops serve as judge, jury and executioner.
And that's the very reason Senator Paul took to the Senate floor yesterday. The Obama Administration's policy has put us on a very slippery slope, no matter how unlikely a domestic drone strike might be. Few would object to blowing up a known cop killer, but once you start down that path, who makes the decision on which "threats" will live, and who will die. It's an issue that requires clarification, but so far, the White House has been noticeably quiet, save Mr. Holder's recent comments.
Their silence is understandable to some degree; in a post-9 11 environment, no chief executive wants to paint himself in a corner regarding homeland security. But claiming you have the right to employ drone strikes in the United States isn't a policy, it's a legal opinion. As UAVs enter service with more police agencies, it's a good idea to develop some protocols and boundaries for their use.
As for Senator Paul, his crusade strikes us as incomplete. We haven't found a full transcript of his remarks, but there doesn't seem to be any mention of the more pressing threat posed by police UAVs. Lest we forget, the primary mission of such platforms is surveillance. With the ability to mount almost any type of sensor package on those platforms--and transmit the information almost anywhere--it raises serious questions about what the drones will be monitoring, and who can access that information.
Consider this statistic: on any given day, the U.S. Air Force operates more than two dozen drone orbits around the world (at the peak of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the number was about 36). Collectively, the amount of information collected annually by these missions is measured in terabytes (emphasis ours). This data is linked to various intelligence nodes around the world, where it is stored on secure computer networks, and reviewed again and again.
How will local law enforcement determine who (and what) is monitored, and what will happen to all that information gathered by their UAVs. So far, details on that aspect of the operation have been virtually non-existent, and that should be troubling to anyone concerned about their right to privacy.
Senator Paul's concerns are well-founded, even though your chances of being killed by a domestic drone are exceedingly remote. On the other hand, there is a very good chance that your home, your car, or your activities may fall under the gaze of a police drone in the near future. Couple that various data-mining techniques and systems like Stingray (which can locate any cell phone, as long as it's turned on), and you've got handy tools for an authoritarian regime, if not a police state.
Maybe its time for another filibuster, Senator Paul.
ADDENDUM: Last September, a team of researchers at the Heritage Foundation offered some principles for drone operations in the United States. Mr. Paul and his allies should consider introducing them as a bill. The ability of technology to outpace existing laws--particularly in regard to the Fourth, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments--cannot be overstated.