The Other Drone Question: Is Obama Building A Federal Police Force?
Less than two weeks ago, Sen. Rand Paul's demanded to know whether the president believed he had a right to kill an American citizen on American soil with a drone, finally getting an answer that had to be dragged out Attorney General Eric Holder. An equally important, but still unasked question is whether the president intends to build a federal, drone-based "public safety" force to police local communities.
Somebody had better ask the president about this quickly, because it appears that his administration intends to use drones to actively usurp what were once local police and sheriff's department functions.
Put it all together, and it sure looks like Obama is building the backbone for that national police force he wanted the first time he ran for office.
Worse yet, both Democrats and Republicans are now openly discussing a plan to put all the drones flown in America's skies, including those owned and operated by local police departments, under the ultimate supervision of the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice, consolidating the country's surveillance and law enforcement powers under one powerful federal police jurisdiction.
According to Wired.com, DHS is now experimenting with how its drones can be used in "first responder, law enforcement and border security scenarios."
The DHS's drones could also be used, Nextgov.com reported, "to support emergency and non-emergency incidents nationwide" and to give the department "situational awareness" in public safety matters or disasters, including forest fires. The department also plans to use its drones, and their attached cameras to surveil and police sporting events, political events and large public gatherings.
The problem with DHS's plans is that many of the above functions used to be handled by local law enforcement without any help from the federal government.
DHS appears to be planning a vast surveillance network, and it is rapidly developing the technology to create it. Wired.com reports this about drone technology:
The Department of Homeland Security is interested in a camera package that can peek in on almost four square miles of (constitutionally protected) American territory for long, long stretches of time.
Homeland Security doesn't have a particular system in mind. Right now, it's just soliciting "industry feedback" on what a formal call for such a "Wide Area Surveillance System" might look like. But it's the latest indication of how powerful military surveillance technology, developed to find foreign insurgents and terrorists, is migrating to the home front.
The Department of Homeland Security says it's interested in a system that can see between five to 10 square kilometers - that's between two and four square miles, roughly the size of Brooklyn, New York's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood - in its "persistent mode." By "persistent," it means the cameras should stare at the area in question for an unspecified number of hours to collect what the military likes to call "pattern of life" data - that is, what "normal" activity looks like for a given area.
In America, community policing has always been done at the local level. If a police force engaged in corruption, abused people, or got out of control, local voters could and likely would rapidly vote out the mayor or council that controlled it. You could get a badge number. You could file a report. You could call your local newspaper. This has always kept police departments responsive to the will and the needs of local communities - and firmly under their control.
But drone technology is now allowing Washington's multitude of law enforcement agencies to begin to compete for police powers and police duties that have always fallen to local police departments.
Even more alarming, a subcommittee of the Committee on Homeland Security is currently studying a plan to put all the drones flown in America's airways under direct supervision of DHS and the Department of Justice.
After a 2011 plot to use a drone to bomb the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol was thwarted by the FBI, Congress began exploring the idea of putting all drones - including those flown by local law enforcement agencies - under federal control to protect citizens against rogue drone operators with bad intentions.
The House Homeland Security committee, which oversees these matters, also became concerned last year that other federal government agencies were "borrowing DHS drones or procuring their own for scouting populated areas - without the department's supervision," Nextgov.com reported.
To deal with all of this, Committee on Homeland Security subcommittee Chairman Michael McCaul, a Republican from Texas, says the committee will mandate that DHS, the Justice Department and the FAA coordinate to oversee all drones that fly within the country, but has said he prefers that the Obama administration do so without a requirement from Congress.
While the intentions here might not be totalitarian, the ultimate outcome could be, especially as more federal and local law enforcement agencies come to rely on drone technology and the federal government begins to police the interior in ways that were unthinkable just 15 years ago, before the Department of Homeland Security - and the use of drone technology -- even existed.
On Washington's present track with this, in a decade it could be hard to tell where your local police department ends and the federal government begins.
Follow Tara Servatius on Facebook at facebook.com/TaraServatiusOnline and on Twitter at @TaraServatius or https://twitter.com/TaraServatius. Tara hosts the morning show on WTMA 1250 AM, Charleston.