Watching the Watchers

Somehow, we knew this day would come.  Congress and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are partnering with legislation and execution of the deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles for use by law enforcement agencies across the country.  Recent advancements in reducing the weight, size, and related costs of sophisticated aerial drones are now making possible the surveillance of large swaths of metropolitan areas.

This news comes from a report issued not by National Review, but by, of all sources.  This is indeed an issue where liberals and conservatives can share common air, let alone common ground.  What this report also demonstrates is a growing technological capability coupled with an ominous partnership of corporate interests and federal and local security agencies in the monitoring of American citizens' daily lives.  We are beginning to witness the morphing of a brilliant tool/weapon system of American battlefield dominance into a dreadful instrument of law enforcement overreach.

Two large factors add to this disturbing development: it is being done with little debate or public scrutiny, and it is only a part of an increasing array of methods used by government at all levels to surveil the citizenry.

Jefferson Morley, writing in his article "The Drones Are Coming -- to America" for, has identified the new "iron triangle" of manufacturing interests, the congressional representative districts in which those companies reside, and executive branch agencies, as well as the end-user beneficiaries.  Citing a story from The Texas Independent, he writes:

The [Unmanned Systems Caucus] enjoys the backing of the defense industry. The co-chairs of the caucus, Reps. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., and Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, received $64,000 and $7,400, respectively, from General Atomics, the firm that developed the first military drones, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. So far during the 2012 campaign cycle the General Atomics PAC has contributed $68,500 to 15 drone caucus members.

To be fair, many of those legislators seeking unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) use in their districts do so for the purposes of border patrol.  That, in and of itself, is a legitimate use of the technology in an attempt to stem the exigent threat of rampant illegal entry into the country from the Mexican border.  However, this is viewed by others as a Trojan horse for the drones to be used as part of a future integrated system of population monitoring.  DHS Director Janet Napolitano has not equivocated in the least at the application of UAV systems for domestic purposes.

In a November 22, 2010 interview with PBS commentator Charlie Rose, Napolitano states, "[Terrorists] are going to continue to probe the system and try to find a way through[.] ... I think the tighter we get on aviation, we have to also be thinking now about going on to mass transit or to trains or maritime.  So, what do we need to be doing to strengthen our protections there?"  In other words, the threat of terrorism on U.S. soil (or civil unrest) is so virulent that the national network of transportation in all its forms must now be considered venues for DHS imposition.  Napolitano's line of thinking suggests that existing security and intelligence apparati are insufficient to provide an adequate level of protection for Americans domestically.  It also suggests that the still-new security measures implemented at airports are 100% effective, and that observed effectiveness will translate to other applications.

These assertions may indeed be proven accurate.  However, I ask, "In what human endeavor are systems ever 100% effective?"  We had five operational space shuttles with NASA, by far the world's most advanced and technologically adept space agency.  NASA directly or through contractors employs the greatest talent in aeronautical and aerospace engineering.  Safety devices and procedures for the shuttles had three, four, five, or more layers of redundancy.  We have lost two shuttles out of a fleet of five.  That's a 40% loss rate by my calculations.

We are not at war with a rational, traditional enemy.  Islamic jihadists repeatedly have shown a complete willingness to accept the ridiculous false promise of heavenly reward in exchange for ending the lives of numerous infidels in the most violent ways possible.  The World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the fields of Pennsylvania bear ugly witness to that.  So while we observe that current airport screening measures presumably have not failed, can we extrapolate that they will remain 100% effective?  There may indeed come a day when even the most robust airport security measures will be defeated by terrorists, and we will lose yet another airliner and/or building.  Jihadists are a maniacally determined lot.

As an analogy, many years ago, state troopers and county deputies would hide behind Lucky Strike and Barbasol billboards in order to catch speeders in the act.  Years went by, and the game became more sophisticated.  Over-the-road truckers and ordinary motorists alike availed themselves of a new technology, citizens band radio, where they could advise one another on the speed traps ahead.  Police radar guns and laser guns escalated the nonviolent "arms race" in favor of the troopers and deputies.  The market countered on behalf of truckers with radar and laser detecting sensors.

Do you see where this is going?  Punch, counterpunch.  Thrust and parry.  The game goes on.  What becomes caught in the crossfire of analogous electronic surveillance measures are the individual liberties of the American citizens the protectors are supposed to guard.

The escalation of DHS, state, and local surveillance measures by use of UAVs is a dangerous trend.  So, too, is the partnership this multi-level governmental cooperation represents.  Furthermore, as technologies improve, it is likely that the temptation to exploit those capabilities will increase as well.  We can accept the intrusions as a trade-off for imagined increased security -- or we can recognize that ill-defined and improbable external threats are no basis for the surrendering of liberty.

Supporters of aerial reconnaissance of civilians will sanctimoniously charge, "Where were you on 9-11-2001?  Safe at your desk a thousand miles away, I'm sure!  You didn't have relatives in those buildings or airplanes.  Who are you willing to sacrifice next time when we refuse to employ aerial drones?"  All very fair questions, but they miss the point.  If we are so concerned for the safety of the corporeal existence of our being that we will willingly hand over to a central government all responsibilities for our protection -- with the incumbent loss of individual rights and human dignity -- then we have no remaining semblance to past generations who treasured those same liberties.  If this is true, and we are ready to submit to invasive monitoring on this unprecedented scale, then the terrorists truly have defeated us.  The fires of liberty will have been lost; and we shamefully will have spat upon the graves of our Founding Fathers.

Call it hyperbole if you will.  American patriot Samuel Adams spoke of this dynamic more eloquently from a more eloquent age, when he said, "While the people are virtuous they cannot be subdued; but once they lose their virtue, they will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal invader. ... If virtue and knowledge are diffused among the people, they will never be enslaved. This will be their great security."  Who among you would say Adams was hyperbolic?