Drone aircraft to watch our cities
By Joe Baker, Senior Editor
Big Brother is coming to your neighborhood. More and more federal agencies are signing on to plans for the use of pilotless drone aircraft to patrol the nations northern and southern borders, watch pipelines and for other homeland security missions.
Sen. John Warner, R-Va., who will head the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he intends to ask President Bush to look into possible deployment of drone aircraft to civilian agencies in charge of homeland security.
These planes would be like the ones used by the CIA and the military to target Taliban and al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan, and they can operate from as high as 20,000 feet making them virtually invisible. The CIA used such a drone to fire Hellfire missiles that killed purported alQaeda operatives in Yemen. But federal officials claim the domestic drones would be unarmed and would carry only cameras or sensors.
Such use of military hardware and personnel would constitute a violation of the Posse Comitatus Act, a Civil War era law that bars the use of U.S. armed forces and equipment for civilian law enforcement.
Sen. Warner acknowledges there are privacy and civil liberties considerations in this program. He called for a study to be initiated by the president on the future use of these planes, known as UAVs, or unmanned aerial vehicles. This study, he said, should include the civil liberties issues.
Agencies already committed to using UAVs include the Coast Guard and the Border Patrol. Both agencies are included in the new Department of Homeland Security. The Transportation Department has begun investigating the use of these planes.
UAVs are controlled from the ground and are capable of remaining over an area for many hours, sometimes for days, to relay accurate and timely information. The military and the CIA have used them for reconnaissance, surveillance, targeting, bomb damage assessment and telecommunication relays without risking air crews. One such aircraft is called the Predator. This plane can operate up to 25,000 feet.
Interest in drones has grown rapidly since 9-11 with increased activity in the past two months. Several federal agencies are in talks with major aircraft manufacturers, such as Boeing, about adapting UAV technology for civilian purposes.
Despite federal assurances that drones will not be used in an intrusive manner against civilians, the potential for abuse remains high.