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The 5th Year of Obama’s Drone War Begins

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This article was submitted by Derrick Broze

As we mark the fifth anniversary of President Obama’s drone war questions remain on whether the drones are effective, if Americans support their use domestically, and whether the technology is a threat to privacy, a harbinger of doom or a possible way to expand freedom.

In February 2012 Congress voted to begin allowing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), or drones, into public airspace. The Federal Aviation Authority was charged with drafting the rules under which the controversial aircraft will operate. In December 2013 the FAA designated six U.S. cities as test sites for reviewing the technology and developing the rules for drone use. Currently the FAA has until September 2015 to create a safe environment for drones to fly alongside commercial airlines and military planes.

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At a recent Senate hearing the FAA stated they did not believe full integration of drones with standard air traffic would happen until 2020. Lobbyists for the drone industry asked Congress to speed up the process so the United States could catch up to countries such as Japan that have taken advantage of drone technology. Senator Dianne Feinstein testified at the hearing, calling for protection from armed drones on American soil.

It seems obvious the Era of the Drones is upon us. From armed predator drones flying overseas and murdering suspected militants, to drones delivering packages to your doorstep, it is perfectly clear that UAV’s are here to stay. One estimate sees the industry exploding to over $89 billion in the next ten years. With such a diverse amount of ways to use this technology privacy concerns have become rampant. Some Americans also seem weary of normalizing a technology domestically after it has been the cause of so much suffering internationally.

The journal Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict recently featured two papers discussing the use of drones by the military. In “U.S.Public Support for Drone Strikes against Asymmetric Enemies Abroad: Poll Trends in 2013″ Tom McCauley discusses an increasing amount of Americans who are against the use of drones on suspected terrorists in foreign countries. He notes that if drones continue to receive negative publicity within the United States and abroad they may become “politically impractical”.

“Drone Warfare and Contemporary Strategy Making: Does the Tail Wag the Dog?” asks whether drones are actually increasing the power of anti-U.S. protesters by gaining sympathy with the civilian population. The paper, written by Metin Gurcan, wonders if the use of drones are counter productive despite perceived benefits. In the face of these concerns the annual budget for drones has increased from $1.9 billion in 2006 to $5.1 billion in 2011.

Although it is unlikely that we will see armed drones in our skies anytime soon the track record for drone deaths in other nations has painted the technology in a negative light. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the CIA carried out 27  drone strikes in Pakistan during 2013, and 38 in Yemen, including the now infamous attack on December 12, 2013 that killed 15 people at a wedding. TBIJ estimates over 2,400 deaths in the last 5 years since Obama took over the drones. It is difficult to know exactly how many civilians have been killed under the U.S. drone program since official numbers are not recorded, however Senator Lindsey Graham estimated that 4,700 people have been killed.

In October 2013 family members of those slain by the U.S. in  Pakistan told their story to Congress. This marked the first time the victims, often referred to simply as militants, were given an audience with the American public and U.S. lawmakers. The public has also been missing perspective from another component of the drone war: the pilots.

Heather Linebaugh served as an Imagery Analyst in the United Stated Air Force from January 6th 2009 until March 2012. She was stationed at Beale AFB California as part of an Intelligence Squadron. Linebaugh left the military in March 2012 and began speaking out on her experience as a drone pilot in Iraq and Afghanistan. In late December 2013 she released a scathing article through the Guardian calling on Americans to recognize the failures of the unmanned systems.

Linebaugh states, “The feed is so pixelated, what if it’s a shovel, and not a weapon?” I felt this confusion constantly, as did my fellow UAV analysts. We always wonder if we killed the right people, if we endangered the wrong people, if we destroyed an innocent civilian’s life all because of a bad image or angle.” She states that drone pilots are haunted by memories of deaths, and have little resources for therapy because of the secrecy of such missions. She also notes that records are not kept on the number of suicides, and disorders for UAV pilots.

With such a backlash against the technology a number of states have decided to initiate protections against the aircraft. Recently New Jersey approved a bill that will force authorities to get warrants every time they deploy a drone for an investigation. Later this year a Colorado town will vote on legislation that would allow for drone hunting. In 2013 forty three states considered bills related to domestic drone use. Eight states passed bills related to data retention limits, limits on collecting and saving information, and warrants.

Some would say fears over drone surveillance and armed craft flying over American skies are unfounded, but many point to the United States’ killing of 16 year American citizen Abdulrahman al Awlaki as evidence that the government could attack it’s own people. In April 2013 a memo (http://msnbcmedia.msn.com/i/msnbc/sections/news/020413_DOJ_White_Paper.pdf) from the Department of Justice containing the Obama administration’s policy on assassinations was leaked. The government made it clear with the killing of Abdulrahman and his father Anwar al Awlaki, suspected of Al qaeda ties, that citizens who pose an “imminent threat” may be killed in the name of national security.

Like any other tool drones are capable of advancing our lives in both positive and negative ways. It’s not hard to imagine a number of ways we could apply the technology to help improve our lives. It might be possible to have activist drones that can give participants at a rally an aerial view of the surroundings. Possibly for use as a cop watching  assistant. There are even ways we could apply the technology to better our lives through our food. The Department of Transportation and the State of Idaho recently announced that the FAA authorized the use of two remote-controlled aircraft to monitor potato fields in eastern Oregon.

Drones are here to stay. What matters is how we choose to allow this technology to manifest itself in our lives. One shining light in all this is that 2013 was the first year there were no confirmed casualties as a result of drones in Pakistan. Perhaps with a deeper understanding of the potential of UAV technology we can step away from its use a war machine and spy tool, and step towards an era of drones as a tool for expanding our freedoms.


Derrick Broze is an investigative journalist, community activist, gardener and promoter from Houston, Texas. He is the co-founder of The Houston Free Thinkers, and co-host of Free Thinker Radio. Broze also hosts and produces a weekly podcast under the name the Conscious Resistance Live. His writing can be found on TheConsciousResistance.com, The Liberty Beat, the Anti-Media,  Activist Post, and other independent media sources.

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