• The Trouble With Drones.

    Image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force

    Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVS), also known as drones, are aircraft either controlled by ‘pilots’ from the ground or increasingly, autonomously following a pre-programmed mission. (While there are dozens of different types of drones, they basically fall into two categories: those that are used for reconnaissance and surveillance purposes and those that are armed with missiles and bombs.

    The use of drones has grown quickly in recent years because unlike manned aircraft they can stay aloft for many hours (Zephyr a British drone under development has just broken the world record by flying for over 82 hours nonstop); they are much cheaper than military aircraft and they are flown remotely so there is no danger to the flight crew.

    While the British and US Reaper and Predator drones are physically in Afghanistan and Iraq, control is via satellite from Nellis and Creech USAF base outside Las Vegas, Nevada. Ground crews launch drones from the conflict zone, then operation is handed over to controllers at video screens in specially designed trailers in the Nevada desert. One person ‘flies’ the drone, another operates and monitors the cameras and sensors, while a third person is in contact with the “customers”, ground troops and commanders in the war zone. While armed drones were first used in the Balkans war, their use has dramatically escalated in Afghanistan, Iraq and in the CIA’s undeclared war in Pakistan.

    - Sourced from Drone Wars UK
    The new face of the ongoing forever war to root out suspected terrorists, further cement American hegemony in the Middle East and South Asia and to make the guys running Iran feel rather uncomfortable is what at first glance appears to be an overgrown RC plane with funny-looking fins. It's also an ever-growing bone of contention between the president, numerous Democrats, pundits fascinated with "poutrage" and the art of martyrdom for purity's sake and ordinary Americans who don't want to see some overgrown RC plane loitering over their house while grilling burgers in the backyard. Or get taken off this mortal coil by one.

    The president's taken a beating over the use of drone warfare in the War on Terror time and again, mostly on the grounds of what he can and can't do in regards to using them and where. Most recently, members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus issued a letter to the administration demanding a little more transparency when it comes to drone use and the declassification of several DOJ memos that discuss the legal ramifications of targeting Americans in the commission of counterterrorism drone strikes. Some Senate Democrats are also asking questions:

    President Barack Obama faced a tough question on drone policy from a fellow Democrat during a Senate meeting Tuesday and defended his administration's program, according to sources in the meeting.

    The administration's drone program captured national attention last week when Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) carried out a nearly 13-hour filibuster to protest elements of it.

    Rand specifically wanted clarification from the White House as to whether it believes it has the authority to use a drone to kill an American citizen on American soil who is not engaged in combat, as it feels it does when a citizen is on foreign soil. The day after Rand's filibuster, Attorney General Eric Holder answered that no, the president does not have such authority.

    Senate Democrats were largely absent from Paul's filibuster last week. But on Monday, a group of progressive Senate Democrats pressed Obama on the issue. Details of the exchange so far are scarce.

    "There was an exchange, but I don't want to get into the specifics," said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.).

    "Basically, the president said that they're doing everything they can to comply with the law and to give information to members of the Intelligence Committee," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who paused for a long moment before answering. "And he said they would continue on that path."

    A source in the meeting said one question was posed by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), a member of the Committee on Intelligence. A spokesperson for Rockefeller didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

    I'm all for a little clarification and a definite restraint on power, in this case. Getting comfortable with the idea of drone warfare opens the doors to drones as a general solution for every "problem." Law enforcement agencies are chomping at the bit for a chance to deploy drones for surveillance and the FAA's accommodating them with a law that will, among other things, open up the nation's airspace to drones. A few states are attempting to put a damper on that fun before it even begins.

    The whole idea of drones seems simple, even to the "Our Troops" crowd - instead of keeping thousands of soldiers in Afghanistan to hunt down insurgents affiliated with Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, let a few soldiers stationed in air-conditioned trailers identify, stalk and snipe at insurgents, right from the comfort of their own bases.

    In theory, drones survey and even eliminate high value targets without any U.S. troops or ordinary civilians being put in harms way. In reality, drones have come under fire for causing large numbers of civilian casualties. Pakistani reports put the tally at 14 high-level insurgents and 687 civilians between 2006 and 2009. The Brookings Institution estimates that for every insurgent killed, at least 10 civilians are killed. The New America Foundation puts a more positive spin on the drone death count, attributing over 80 percent of the estimated 2,551 drone-related deaths since 2004 to insurgents.

    Civilian deaths draw plenty of outrage on their own, but to yours truly, that's not the real reason most people are taking a distinctly conspiratorial sheen to drone warfare. The big fear comes from drones evolving from tools used solely by the military under combat and reconnaissance scenarios to tools used against U.S. citizens by law enforcement, the CIA and various alphabet-soup organizations. As explained above, LEOs across the country would love to get their hands on yet another piece of military tech-turned crimefighting tool. Imagine the LAPD with a squadron of drones looking down on the activities of ordinary citizens, scoping drivers over the speed limit and keeping tabs on activists during a protest.

    Unlike the drones currently in use in Afghanistan and Pakistan, America's homebound drones won't be fitted with missiles. Tear gas canisters, heat-inducing microwaves and other "less-than-lethal" devices, perhaps. But at least you can rest assured that the family BBQ in the backyard won't end up like, say, a wedding party somewhere in Afghanistan.

    In this case, I understand where Glenn Greenwald's coming from. He doesn't like drones any more than I do. Neither does David Sirota, for that matter. But both manage to nurture their awe-inspiring hatred of drones through absolutely questionable choices that leave others thinking, "what the hell are these guys about anyways?"

    In the fight against drones, both Greenwald and Sirota have hitched their sidecars onto the freewheeling anti-drone motorcycle ridden by a certain Rand Paul, U.S. Senator from Kentucky and son of Ron Paul. As it turns out, Rand Paul doesn't like drones any more than Greenwald or Sirota. Que the lesser Paul's filibuster of John Brennan, the administration's pick for CIA director.

    At least he said he didn't like drones. One sad aspect about the War on Drones is that the opportunistic can always latch onto the chance of straddling the aisle and gaining instant respect on a subject that both sides can agree on. The lesser Paul's filibuster didn't just give him plenty of anti-drone cred among the libertarian types who think his dad is a swell guy and conservative militia-types who dream of the president personally ordering drone strikes on their compounds - it also gave him a way to strike out at the president and the administration on a topic that's leaving them a bit black and blue.

    From what I hear, lesser Paul's gearing up for a run at the POTUS nomination for 2016.

    Sadly, both Sirota and Greenwald instantly developed the hots for Rand Paul after his "brave stand" against drones. Along with it came a rather rabid defense against anyone who dared to point out Rand's less-than-stellar qualities. Being told that their new man-crush is a bit of a racist prick who's conservative to the bone really, genuinely, truly upsets them. It's the ideological equivalent of a teenage girl being warned about her older, prospect-less, drug-abusing boyfriend, whom she think she loves very much.

    In the War on Drones, consorting with the enemy thanks to one common interest is apparently acceptable practice, judging from the number of progressives choosing to #StandWithRand despite having every reason in the world to do otherwise. Neither Sirota nor Greenwald want to admit making a mistake in giving the equivalent of naked pics of themselves to their man-crush, which is why I expect both to continue their man-crush until the public mercifully forgets all about it or until Rand Paul does something that allows both Sirota and Greenwald to publicly repudiate him and move on to their next man-crush.

    In the meantime, two more suspected militants were "targeted" in a drone strike somewhere in North Waziristan.