Tuesday’s disclosure of the U.S. Justice Department’s memo — “Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a U.S. Citizen who is a Senior Operation Leader of al-Qaeda or An Associated Force” — by NBC News has made the use of drones domestically a hot-button issue.
At least 11 states have brought forth bills limiting the use of the surveillance technology or anti-drone laws, including Virginia, Montana, Maine, Oklahoma, Missouri, North Dakota, Nebraska, Florida, Oregon and California.
According to Fox News, the Virginia General Assembly has passed a two-year moratorium on the governmental use of drones. This followed Monday’s announcement that Charlottesville, Va. passed a resolution banning the use of drones in the city’s airspace. The Charlottesville resolution “calls on the United States Congress and the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia to adopt legislation prohibiting information obtained from the domestic use of drones from being introduced into a Federal or State court,” and “pledges to abstain from similar uses with city-owned, leased, or borrowed drones.”
Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), can be armed with weaponry and are operated remotely by human operators. A UAV can range in size from the size of a model airplane to the size of a piloted vehicle. As the operator is removed from any real danger, drones can be used in situations where it is not efficient or safe to send in a jet. Drones can be configured to be used in tactical strikes and strategic bombings, as well as surveillance and remote photography.
Nominee for director of the Central Intelligence Agency, John Brennan, has supported and is credited for designing the current unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) program under the Disposition Matrix database, under which individuals outside of war zones can be put on the list of drone targets.
This has raised concerns, as the Justice Department memo states that “the condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.”
The use of surveillance drones for law enforcement offers budget-restricted police agencies the opportunity to increase patrol areas without the need of adding more officers. Proponents of domestic drones also argue that the drones would be useful in search-and-rescue operations and for data gathering during natural disasters.
In February 2012, Congress passed the FAA Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2012, which orders the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to permit the domestic use of UAV weighing under 25 pounds. It is thought by some that as many as 30,000 drones can be in American airspace by 2020.
Surveillance drones can be armed with lethal or nonlethal weapons, such as Tasers, beanbag rounds, rubber bullets or gas grenades.
An increasing coalition of organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and the Tea Party Federation have argued that the temptation by law enforcement to infringe upon individual privacy and liberty with this technology is too great.
While a few agencies currently use drones, such as the Seattle Police Department and the Mesa County, Colo. sheriff’s department, the track record for civil liberty violations for these agencies suggest that the misuse of this technology is not only possible, but likely.
The ACLU has proposed that domestic drones should be limited to use granted by warrant, for emergency use or in response to a specific criminal action where the drone can collect evidence otherwise unobtainable. The ACLU also feels that obtained data from the drone should only be retained as evidence in the case of trial, that usage policies should be decided openly and politically, that drone use should be subject to open audit and proper oversight and drones should never be allowed to carry lethal or nonlethal weaponry.
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