Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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You Might Have Missed: Drone Secrets, Noise, and Civil Liberties

by Micah Zenko
March 29, 2013

A U.S. Predator unmanned drone armed with a missile stands on the tarmac of Kandahar military airport. (Massoud Hossaini/Courtesy Reuters). A U.S. Predator unmanned drone armed with a missile stands on the tarmac of Kandahar military airport. (Massoud Hossaini/Courtesy Reuters).

Jameel Jaffer, “The Drone Secrets We Should See,” Politico, March 29, 2013.

The administration owes the public a fuller account of the program. It should begin by releasing the legal memos that supposedly justify the program. In litigation, the government has acknowledged the existence of three memos; it has shown other memos to some members of Congress. Disclosure of the memos to the public — redacted, if necessary, to protect intelligence sources and methods — would help the public better understand who the government considers to be lawful targets and why the government believes the program to be consistent with domestic and international law.

Jay Solomon, Julian E. Barnes, and Alastair Gale, “North Korea Warned,” Wall Street Journal, March 29, 2013.

Some U.S. officials argued that the bomber flights would be unduly provocative and akin to recent North Korean actions, which these officials said have irresponsibly ratcheted up tensions. Defense officials acknowledged that North Korean military officers are particularly agitated by bomber flights because of memories of the destruction wrought from the air during the Korean War.

Other administration officials argued in favor of a strong show of force, according to senior defense officials. The U.S. defense secretary said he believed the bomber flights would calm the situation….

U.S. officials said they didn’t believe North Korea could detect the approach of the B-2s but couldn’t be certain. They noted that once the bombers passed over the Korean peninsula, they were no longer trying to hide their presence.”We could fly it at night, but the point was for them to see it,” said a U.S. defense official.

Associated Press, “Dawn of the Civilian Drone Age Promises Multiple Benefits, Peeping-Eye Concerns,” The Washington Post, March 29, 2013.

Civilian drone use is limited to government agencies and public universities that have received a few hundred permits from the FAA. A law passed by Congress last year requires the FAA to open U.S. skies to widespread drone flights by 2015, but the agency is behind schedule and it’s doubtful it will meet that deadline. Lawmakers and industry officials have complained for years about the FAA’s slow progress. The FAA estimates that within five years of gaining broader access about 7,500 civilian drones will be in use….

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., recently drew attention to the domestic use of drones when he staged a Senate filibuster, demanding to know whether the president has authority to use weaponized drones to kill Americans on American soil. The White House said no, if the person isn’t engaged in combat. Industry officials worry that the episode could temporarily set back civilian drone use.

“The opposition has become very loud,” said Gitlin of [drone manufacturer] AeroVironment, “but we are confident that over time the benefits of these solutions are going to far outweigh the concerns, and they’ll become part of normal life in the future.”

Associated Press, “Afghan Villagers Flee Their Homes, Blame US Drones As Targeted Killings of Militants Rise,” The Washington Post, March 28, 2013.

Rasool and other Afghan villagers have their own name for Predator drones. They call them benghai, which in the Pashto language means the “buzzing of flies.” When they explain the noise, they scrunch their faces and try to make a sound that resembles an army of flies.

“They are evil things that fly so high you don’t see them but all the time you hear them,” said Rasool, whose body is stooped and shrunken with age and his voice barely louder than a whisper. “Night and day we hear this sound and then the bombardment starts.”

(3PA:  In 2012, Leah Bolger, President of Veterans for Peace asked U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, Richard C. Hoagland if he “would concede that the constant buzzing of drones overhead 24 hours a day, [was] a form of psychological warfare.  Hoagland responded: “You know I’ve heard those stories, I haven’t been there to hear it myself, and I will tell you what my suspicion is, that that’s not actually true, because drones fly at such a high altitude they can’t be seen or heard.”  That’s not true.)

The (Longest) Road to Damascus,” Wall Street Journal, March 28, 2013.

The U.S. could boost its diplomatic leverage with the rebels and their regional allies by enforcing no-fly zones over portions of Syria. That would help prevent the regime from using its attack jets and helicopter gunships against civilian targets while allowing insurgents to consolidate and extend their territorial gains. It also means we could use limited force in a way that strengthens the hand of rebels we support at the expense of those we don’t.

(3PA: This is a dangerous and flawed conception about how military force is used.)

Jakob Rodgers, “Budget Cuts Drag on Space Command,” The Gazette, March 24, 2013.

If you’re following in the press — hear about concerns about cyber attacks and all that kind of business — we don’t have the legal regime in place, we don’t have the policy regime in place.

We’re still working our way through how would we respond if we came under attack. Which part of the government has that particular responsibility? Is it Homeland Security? Is it U.S. Cyber Command? Is it the Department of Defense writ large?

So this is not unique to Air Force Space Command. This is the entire nation trying to get its arms around this whole cyber business.

Greg Miller, Joby Warrick, and Karen DeYoung, “Backing Up Obama’s Warnings to Syria Creates Tough Challenges on Two Fronts,” The Washington Post, March 24, 2013.

“If we had to go in tomorrow, I’d say we aren’t ready,” said an Obama administration official involved in preparations for securing Syria’s chemical weapons. “One thing we want to avoid is having one group securing the sites and another group bombing them.”

Ryan P. Allen, “The 600-pound Gorilla: Why We Need a Smaller Defense Department,” NDU Press, Jauary 2013.

The Defense Department is kept from being proportional to its actual role by organizational inertia and its size.  Use of force, and the abundance of manpower and material that enable it, are traditional strengths, but the military is unsustainable at its present cost.  Without a reduction, the Nation is weakened economically, and overreliance on the military has corresponding effect on both US status and on domestic regard for the military even as fewer Americans than ever have served or understand what the military does.  Relying on the inherent goodness of man is insufficient; the U.S. Armed Forces must remain the most capable, but leaders must asses what is needed and the long-term effects of military responses and adjust accordingly.

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  • Posted by Don Bacon

    The FAA is going to control drones? I don’t think so. I was in a Verizon store the other day — they have a TV-equipped 4-rotor drone for sale, for $299.99.

    from agriculture.com –
    Whether you refer to it as a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles), sUAS (small unmanned aerial systems), or drone, the technology has the potential to provide a cutting-edge way for farmers to monitor their crops, grasslands, and cattle without ever stepping foot in a field.

    It’s a technology that is currently being used in other countries like France, Japan, Spain and Uruguay.

    “Around the world they are already using this type of technology for things like spraying,” says Rory Paul, Volt Aerial Robotics. “And they’ve been doing it for 20 years in some cases. You can do different things with this technology – scouting, mapping, spraying and maybe in the future sampling. We an see the scenario where an intelligent Quadcopter will drop down to the field and maybe take a sample.”
    http://www.agriculture.com/machinery/precision-agriculture/flying-robots_234-ar30043

    and from aerialfarmer.blogspot —
    The On-Farm Network based in Iowa did an article on the use of UAVS / Drones for crop scouting in their January 2013 members news letter. The article can be found here. WHO Radio Des Moines did an interview on the use of UAV / Drones in agriculture at the OFN Conference. Click here to listen.
    http://aerialfarmer.blogspot.com/

  • Posted by Don Bacon

    news reports:
    April 1, 2013 (San Diego’s East County) — There’s a new reporter on the beat over East County’s skies. Thanks to a generous bequest from an anonymous donor, East County Magazine announces acquisition of a surveillance drone.

    and:
    Drones have already been used by law enforcement, search-and-rescue groups, and other government agencies in the United States, but unmanned aircraft are still illegal for commercial entities to fly (and will remain illegal until at least 2015), which might be one reason that TMZ’s rumored interest in a drone was quickly denied by the company.

    That makes universities one of the only legal places for journalists to learn to fly drones. At the University of Nebraska, professor Matt Waite says they’re staying “well within the non-commercial rules” and at the University of Missouri, students are working with the nonprofit National Public Radio station KBIA. Both universities are flying drones under a model aircraft exception in the law that allows hobbyists to fly small aircraft at altitudes below 400 feet.

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