The latest in the use of domestic drones

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Congress has opened America’s skies to the use of drones. How worried should we be? And how does Nevada plan to cash in?

By Jason Whited

America’s masters of war came to town recently, looking for the next big jackpot.

Hundreds of defense contractors, some of them the largest arms-makers in history, descended upon the Mandalay Bay Convention Center to tout a proven battlefield commodity as the next big thing in homeland security: unmanned aircraft. You know them as drones.

Among the participating drone companies from 40 countries, the Unmanned Systems North America 2012 conference drew executives and technicians from Lockheed Martin, the world heavyweight champion of weapons-making, along with fellow giants Raytheon, the world’s leading manufacturer of guided missiles, and Pratt & Whitney, one of the three biggest aircraft engine-makers anywhere. And it was no long-shot gamble that brought them here.

See, unlike other conventions, this wasn’t so much a multiday sales pitch as it was an unofficial coming-out party. Thanks to a Congress heavily lobbied by an industry that hopes to double its money in a decade, new laws are opening American skies to these unmanned aircraft. Soon, police departments and other public agencies, in Nevada and across the country, will be able to fly their own, less expensive versions of military drones just about anywhere, deploying them for just about anything they choose.

Drone manufacturers and their proponents insist the capability of these aircraft to hunt bad guys overseas translates well to the home front. Drones such as the now-infamous Predator and its beefier cousin the Reaper had made headlines for years with their ability to hover over combat zones for up to days at a time. These multimillion-dollar unmanned aircraft with their arrays of cameras and other high-tech monitoring devices, some of them still classified, see through clouds, pierce through fog. If armed, drones can obliterate targets miles below with deadly, though troublingly inaccurate, missiles.

As Michael Toscana, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the drone industry trade group that sponsored the convention, said in testimony last month before Congress, the potential uses of drones over America “are virtually limitless.”

Industry spokesmen and law enforcement officials say departments could use drones for a number of noncontroversial missions, whether, as Toscano said, “helping search-and-rescue teams find a lost child, giving researchers a new understanding of hurricanes or helping to fight wildfires … ”

But this industry and the lawmakers it has lobbied face troubling questions from a growing chorus of critics, among them scholars, interfaith peace groups and, increasingly, American citizens who just don’t like the idea of local police, state troopers or federal agents launching eyes in the sky to watch their every move.

What will happen, many drone opponents ask, when local cops unleash these machines — whose use in most cases won’t require warrants — in the skies above U.S. cities? Will police use them to find missing children, to scan neighborhoods for suspicious activity — or for something more nefarious?

This roiling debate is about to boil over, especially here in Nevada. Drone manufacturers, many of which already operate in the state, are hungry for the record profits they’ll realize when U.S. law enforcement agencies begin flying these craft stateside. And Nevada business leaders, researchers and elected officials want their cut, too. They’ve raced to capitalize on these new rules, eager to transform the Silver State into ground zero for domestic drone activity.

THE RULES HAVE CHANGED

Just a few years ago, anyone raising the possibility that American drones flying over the battlefields of the Middle East would soon find their way home would be met with rolling eyes and smirks. But times have changed.

On Feb. 3 of this year, Congress passed the innocuously titled FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. The official description of the bill said its intent was to “modernize the air traffic control system and improve the safety, reliability and availability of transportation by air in the United States,” among other things, but buried in the bowels of the legislation was something far more invasive. While providing funding for the kind of air-travel modernization that few taxpayers would object to (upgrades to control towers and improvements at airports), the measure also mandated Federal Aviation Administration officials to begin rolling out new procedures that allow public agencies to begin flying their own drones.

For several days after its passage, few took notice of this historic shift. But once it became clear that Congress had OK’d the use of drones in American skies, all hell broke loose. It started in the conservative press.

The Washington Times warned “30,000 drones could be in the nation’s skies by 2020.” It’s the “Attack of the Drones,” warned Austin, Texas-based radio host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. The blogosphere exploded with cries of a coming police state in which local deputies remotely piloting drones over U.S. cities would soon be able to watch Americans’ every move — all from five miles up.

Soon, however, calmer voices and supposedly cooler heads began to weigh in, but their warnings sounded just as dire as those from the right-wing scream machine.

“There are serious policy questions on the horizon about privacy and surveillance, by both government agencies and commercial entities,” Federation of American Scientist analyst Steven Aftergood told reporters at the time.

Jennifer Lynch, an attorney with the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, said she and others at her organization worried about how police departments would use these drones and were “concerned about the implications for surveillance …”

Officials at the American Civil Liberties Union called domestic drones “a nightmare scenario” for privacy and the protections long afforded U.S. citizens under the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Some legal scholars say the unmanned aircraft could render moot any modern legal definition of privacy. “The implications are pretty massive,” said UNLV law professor Christopher Blakesley, who is an expert on, among other things, domestic and international criminal law. “Mostly, the implications affect the Fourth Amendment [which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures], but also the Fifth Amendment [which says no person shall be held responsible for a crime without so-called due process] and the overall protection of civil liberties and the protection of freedom of association and free speech.”

Blakesley said he believes a real danger exists that police could use visual evidence from drone surveillance to target average citizens before they’ve been accused of any crime. Plus, he said, what could appear to be evidence of a crime from 10,000 feet up might actually be nothing of the kind.

“By arming [drones] with a camera and listening devices, there is no place you’re private anymore,” he said.

NOT JUST FOR TERRORISTS ANYMORE

Since Congress OK’d domestic drones in February, some law enforcement officials who’ve begun using them have insisted their aim is not widespread surveillance of housewives going to the mall or teenagers headed to a party, but to deploy drones to nab suspects wanted for serious crimes, or to find missing persons. But police across the country who are using drones — and whose ranks don’t yet include any local officers in Nevada — have found, well, creative reasons to deploy their newfound eyes in the sky.

Take, for example, Nelson County Sheriff Kelly Janke, who keeps the peace in eastern North Dakota. In June 2011, Janke was on the hunt for cattle rustlers who made off with six cows from a local farm. When he came upon three men whom he suspected of committing the crime, they came at him with shotguns.

Janke, who was one of the first sheriffs in the country to be able to use unmanned aircraft under a then-federal test program, called in a Predator drone from nearby Grand Forks Air Force Base.

The next morning, drone operators (who worked for a still-unnamed agency) found the suspects, determined they were unarmed and alerted the sheriff. Deputies arrested them without incident.

One of the accused, North Dakota rancher Rodney Brossart, who is believed to be the first American arrested on U.S. soil with the help of a domestic drone, argued in court that the sheriff’s “warrantless use of [an] unmanned military-like surveillance aircraft” and “outrageous governmental conduct” were grounds for dismissal. In late July of this year, District Judge Joel Medd denied Brossart’s challenge, saying from the bench “there was no improper use of an unmanned aerial vehicle” and that the drone “appears to have had no bearing on these charges being contested here.”

With this kind of precedent, legal thinkers such as Blakesley worry that courts across the country will follow in lockstep support once more cops use drones with an increasingly freer hand. “It is worrisome,” he said, “but my hope is we’ll find at least some elected officials — and that includes elected judges — with some ‘anatomy.’ But they’re so scared of being labeled as ‘soft on crime.’ If that continues to be the case, we’re in bad trouble. I fear there’s hardly anyone in Congress or in any state legislature who’ll dare to stand up — or even dare to care.”

Some lawmakers in Washington are beginning to call for restrictions on drone use.

One of those is Massachusetts Democratic Congressman Edward Markey, who on Aug. 1 proposed a bill that seeks to limit the type and amount of data agencies collect on citizens via drones. The bill also required the FAA to consider privacy when it licenses their use. Markey was unavailable for comment by press time, but his office released a statement quoting the congressman as saying, “Drones are already flying in U.S. airspace — with thousands more to come — but with no privacy protections or transparency measures in place. Just because a company soon will be able to register a drone license shouldn’t mean that company can turn it into a cash register by selling consumer information.” It’s not the kind of pushback civil libertarians were hoping for, but it’s a start.

Some Republicans have gone much further in their opposition, including Wyoming Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis, who co-sponsored a recent bill that would require police to obtain warrants before using drones for surveillance.

COMING SOON TO A SKY ABOVE YOU

As part of the push to license police and other agencies to fly drones in U.S. airspace, the FAA and the Department of Homeland Security are working overtime to establish ground rules that are supposed to ensure these unmanned aircraft can fly safely, especially in crowded airspace like that covering the Las Vegas Valley.

Those new policies and procedures should be in place by 2015, but at least 60 public agencies across the U.S. already have permission to fly drones. So far, no local or state law enforcement agencies in Nevada have been given the OK.

Officer Jose Hernandez, a Metro spokesman, said new drone allowances won’t affect his agency for some time to come anyway. “Right now, we can only go off current FAA rules and regulations. For now, Metro is not able to use them.”

Hernandez said those still-developing FAA guidelines and Metro’s current budget constraints prevent Las Vegas police from being able to use drones. But with Homeland Security handing out drone grants to cop shops nationwide, that could change soon. Still, he said, “Right now, it’s just not feasible for us to do this.”

Just two years ago, Metro raised the ire of transparency advocates when it appeared the agency was attempting to suppress information about its true drone aims. Public Intelligence, a research organization that “defends the public’s right to access information,” had posted a series of Metro documents dating from 2007 that purported to show the agency had long planned to use drones. Titled the Silver Shield Program, those Metro documents included claims that Metro wanted to use drones to supplement its officers for special events such as New Year’s Eve celebrations on the Strip, or for more routine missions such as preventing terrorists from targeting roads and bridges throughout the valley. After researchers with Public Intelligence posted those documents online, Metro sent the group a series of e-mails demanding they be removed.

Hernandez said it was all a big misunderstanding. He said the documents were created back in 2007 by a private contractor who once worked for the agency to support its Silver Shield role but was eventually “let go” because of his inability to meet his responsibilities.

Hernandez said the documents don’t reveal any hidden schemes, reiterating his agency doesn’t have the money or the manpower to fly drones. Those documents were “a proposal, [the contractor’s] idea of what he would have liked to see put in place, but it never came to fruition. Nothing ever happened with that,” he said.

Although beither Metro or any other state or local law enforcement agency has plans to begin flying drones anytime soon, plenty is happening with the host of defense contractors that operate here, either manufacturing drones or working on their myriad electronic systems. So far, said FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette, at least 20 private contractors have federal approval to fly drones in Nevada skies. Those companies include some of the biggest defense companies in the world, such as Raytheon, General Atomics and Boeing. For now, those companies fly drones for testing, training and flight demonstrations. State and local law enforcement agencies haven’t yet applied to the FAA for permission to fly drones, but when they do it’s a safe bet they’ll partner with these mammoth contractors to stand up their own fleets.

THE NEXT CASH FRONTIER

That’s exactly what state officials hope for, saying they want agencies across the country to come here to get smart on drones. From Gov. Brian Sandoval down to the deep thinkers at the Desert Research Institute, elected officials and researchers here want Nevada to revitalize its sagging economy by becoming the high-tech hub of domestic drone activity.

This spring, Sandoval appointed a 15-member panel tohelp make that happen.

Steve Hill, the director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development and a member of that panel, said Nevada is an obvious choice to be named by FAA officials later this year as one of six drone test sites nationwide. Considering Nevada is already home to Nellis and Creech Air Froce bases, the epicenter of most military drone operations overseas; has a deep bench of university researchers who’ve long worked on drone technology; and is hosts some of the largest drone contractors on Earth, the state’s chances are excellent.

“It is a fantastic opportunity for the state, and Nevada brings a lot to the table in terms of those assets we have,” he said. “I think we have a very solid business case to present to the FAA.”

Hill, who was at last week’s drone convention to meet with defense contractors, said Nevada officials have talked for years about the need to transform the state into a high-tech research hub, just as officials in Utah and Arizona have already done. All that drone-related expertise should perfectly position Nevada, he said, as a prime candidate to grow this burgeoning domestic industry.

“I think it changes the whole game,” he said. “We do need to attract more research and development into the state … for Nevada, this [industry] is a great opportunity; it’s a great job creator.”

Some of Hill’s fellow panel members said they feel exactly the same optimism. “Nevada is already the home of drone-related activity because of what’s gone on here with both the Department of the Navy and the Department of the Air Force,” said Nevada Adjutant General William Burks. “For what’s needed, Nevada has it all to offer. We have subject-matter experts throughout the state, we have controlled airspace … given that combination with what the FAA is doing with both [the U.S. Department of Defense] and NASA, Nevada is a natural fit.”

Make no mistake: Money — not a desire to fight terrorism in the homeland — is driving the exploding growth in the domestic drone market. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Jennifer Lynch said earlier this year, Congressional approval of domestic unmanned aircraft is the result of “a huge push by lawmakers and the defense sector to expand the use of drones” inside the U.S.

The potential profit in domestic drones is staggering. An April study by defense consulting firm The Teal Group predicted government spending on drones will nearly double in the next decade, from $5.9 billion annually to an estimated $11.3 billion. Teal analysts found much of that growth will come from domestic drone contracts alone.

As Washington, D.C., lobbying analyst Alex Bronstein-Moffly told The Huffington Post in May, “This is one of the few areas where the government is still spending money and investing. This is the trifecta of lobbying.” Indeed, records show that since 2011 the drone industry and its affiliated political action committees have contributed $2.3 million to the 58 members of the so-called House Unmanned Systems Caucus, aka the drone caucus.

Nevada lawmakers, all of whom voted to authorize the use of domestic drones, are also cashing in from this industry largesse. Topping the list? Republican Congressman Joe Heck, who sits on that caucus and has taken at least $20,634 in campaign contributions from drone manufacturers so far this election cycle. Not far behind is U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, who’s taken $18,500. Next up is Republican Congressman Mark Amodei, who’s taken $8,000. Congresswoman Shelley Berkley accepted at least $1,000 from the industry so far this election cycle — although analysts said new campaign donations are made all the time.

It’s easy to see why industry leaders would donate to Heck. Not only is he a member of the House drone caucus, of which Berkley is also a member, he also sits on the powerful House Armed Services Committee, which enjoys enormous oversight of the Pentagon, its budget and the defense contractors that sell it weapons.

For officials at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, Congress has proved to be one helluva sure thing, although Gretchen West, the group’s executive vice president, demurred when asked what effect she believes lobbying has on pushing drone bills through Congress.

“We do have a presence on the Hill and have been working with the Unmanned Systems Caucus, trying to educate members of Congress … we really play more of an educational role,” she said.

Hardly. According to copies of a PowerPoint presentations authored by West’s organization and obtained by the Republic Report, an online journal that investigates the buying and selling of politicians, the trade group pretty much wrote the new drone legislation. “Our suggestions were often taken word-for-word,” the presentation says.

As lawmakers continue to take campaign cash to open up American skies to domestic drones and their unprecedented surveillance capability, legal scholars such as Blakesley are oddly hopeful about the future of personal privacy. While he concedes that local, state and federal law enforcement officials have a nefarious record of homegrown snooping — think of the FBI’s domestic COINTELPRO spying program of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, the currently widespread, often illegal domestic wiretapping by the National Security Agency or even the fondness Nevada cops have shown for placing GPS tracking devices places on the cars of unwitting suspects — he said he hopes drones patrolling U.S. skies will wake Americans up.

“I am still an optimist,” he said. “It all comes down to educating people, and to educating elected officials who, hopefully, are going to grow some of that ‘anatomy, both as judges and as members of Congress and state legislatures. That can happen, but we somehow have to keep people from tuning out and being so ignorant of these things that truly endanger them.”