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The Drone War Comes Home

In August, a 27-year-old female prostitute and her 75-year-old john were charged in Oklahoma City for public lewdness.  They were caught engaging in a clandestine tryst in the gentleman’s Ford F-150 pickup truck on a deserted country road.  At first glance the incident might appear as just another sex-crime bust, but looking at how the perpetrators were apprehended reveals how the surveillance state is spreading though society.

A do-gooder, Brian Bates, a self-promoting “video vigilante” out to halt local prostitution, caught the two culprits on video.  Bates operates johntv.com and been exposing illicit sexual goings-on for nearly two decades.  Like a bad cop show, Bates followed the couple in his car and, hiding a block away, deployed a drone, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) equipped with a camera, to capture images of the couple engaged in their dastardly deed.

Bates presented the video to the local gendarme and, according to an affidavit signed by a law-enforcement officer, the hooker’s “pants were off and the driver appeared to be having sexual intercourse with [her].”

The officer noted, “Once [she] and the driver saw the drone, they immediately ceased their activity and left the area.”  The perpetrators pleaded not guilty to the charge and are free on $500 bond.

What makes this case particularly interesting is that flying an unmanned aircraft, including a drone, is illegal, a violation FAA regulations.  According to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, “We have the safest airspace in the world, and everyone who uses it must understand and observe our comprehensive set of rules and regulations.”  The FAA proposed a $1.9 million fine to a company that used drones to take pictures over New York and Chicago.

It remains to be seen whether the Oklahoma City case will go to trial.  Will the video “evidence” be thrown out?; will the case become a constitutional test pitting federal regulations against a local ordinance?; will the FAA prosecute the do-gooder for violating its regulations?  More revealing, it’s just one more example of the growing use of UAVs by the nation’s increasingly militarized police forces.

* * *

In his invaluable study, “The Rise of the Predator Empire: Tracing the History of U.S. Drones,” Ian Shaw notes, “The first ever CIA drone attack was a disaster.”  In the wake of September 11th, Pres. Bush established the secret High Value Targets (HVTs) list that authorized the CIA to kill people it identifies as an enemy without formal governmental approval.  At the top of that list was Osama bin Laden and, on February 4, 2002, the agency employed a Predator drone in a failed bombing mission to kill him in Afghanistan.

Shaw details the long, long history of military efforts to perfect pilotless airplanes for warfare.  The first major U.S. commitment to this effort came in the wake of downing of the U-2 spy plane in 1960 and such devices were deployed successfully during the Cold War for “surveillance in so-called ‘denied areas’ across an increasingly widening Cold War battlespace: including Cuba, North Korea, and the People’s Republic of China.”

For decades, the U.S. military and CIA used drones for surveillance purposes and had, in Shaw’s words, “experimented with arming the drones with small rockets, but they were too inaccurate for their purpose.”  In early 2001, before 9/11, the CIA conducted tests of the Predator’s Hellfire armed drones at Indian Springs, NV, weapons testing grounds “to turn the hunter into a killer.”  It got one step closer in its failed effort to kill bin Laden.

Since 2002, the U.S. has perfected this new high-tech killing machine.  The Bureau of Investigative Journalism paints a grime picture of U.S. use of “killer” drones.  Its “casualty estimates” for four countries — Pakistan (2004-2015), Yemen (2002-2015), Somalia (2007-2015) and Afghanistan (to 2015) — through September 15, 2015, are disturbing:

*Total strikes: 720-744

*Total kills: 3,763-5,966

*Civilian kills: 553-1,176

And these estimates do not include in Libya, Iran, Syria and other war zones.

* * *

Having proven itself on the battlefield, the drone is coming home.  They are being deployed by “legitimate” government and corporate entities as well as by private citizens like the Oklahoma City snooper.

The FAA is also currently finalizing federal rules governing commercial drone use and has given four companies, Trimble Navigation Limited, VDOS Global, Clayco Inc. and Woolpert Inc., permission to deploy them.

State and local government entities are also assessing the use of drones and drones equipped with cameras, sensors and weaponry.   Some project the domestic U.S. drone market to hit $6 billion by 2020 and law enforcement agencies are being seduced by claims that drones are the next big thing, invaluable tools in the modern police force arsenal.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has assembled a preliminary map depicting the known (as of 2013) locations of drone deployments.

State governments are implementing different legislative approaches to drone use.  North Dakota is the first state to pass a bill permitting local law enforcement to use drones to carry less-than-lethal weaponry that could include tasers, pepper spray, rubber bullets, tear gas and beanbags.  Illinois revised its Drone Surveillance Act to restrict relinquishing information gathered from a third party.

At the local level, governments are struggling to figure out how to balance surveillance and privacy.  North Little Rock (AR) Police Department stated testing the Rotomotion SR30, a 23-pound, gasoline-powered aircraft with a 6-foot rotor blade, in 2008 and determined it “is not something we want to fly inside the city. It’s just too unreliable.”  The Arlington (TX) police sent years securing FAA and other approvals and is finally about to test drones, but is concerned about privacy issues.

At the local level, private citizens are jumping on the drone bandwagon, adding to the social confusion over their deployment.  Their use by local snoopers seems in the minority while other people are using them in a more disruptive manner.  In June 2014, a drone was flown over a gathering at the Los Angeles Staples Center celebrating the L.A. Kings’ win against the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup Final.  This year in New York, two commercial flights into JFK Airport were threatened by illegal drone flights and a man was busted in Central Park for flying one over the Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Drones are the new high-tech “toys” and will likely increasingly clutter the nation’s air space.  One can count on local law-enforcement to increasingly deploy them particularly in light of the rising hysteria about domestic anti-Muslim “terrorism” as well to meet more mundane objectives like tracking speeding cars, drug smugglers and prostitutes.  And for ordinary Americans, is there a drone in your future?

More articles by:

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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