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Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013 03:46 am

Watch out – the drones are coming

For nearly four years, President Obama refused to admit a foreign-policy “secret” that was widely known – that the White House, Pentagon and CIA are engaged in ethically questionable and rapidly escalating drone warfare that’s killing innocent civilians as well as enemy soldiers in Afghanistan, Yemen and elsewhere. But by nominating John Brennan, the architect of this high-tech kill policy, to head the CIA, the president has let the drone out of the bag.

In the past few days, both Brennan and the policy have been getting a grilling from members of both parties on Capitol Hill, with lots of media also questioning the use of unmanned, remote-controlled aircraft to strike people with rockets launched by technicians viewing computer screens and wielding joysticks from bunkers on air bases here in the USA.

How about another deeply troubling policy secret: the domestic deployment of drones. From Homeland Security officials and the FBI to your state police and county sheriff, these inherently invasive “unmanned aerial vehicles” are being spread across our Land of the Free – and aimed at us.

Shouldn’t we get answers to a few basic questions before authorities swarm these “Orwellian gnats” into our skies? For example, what’s the cost of this (in liberty and lucre), what’s the purpose, and what are the rules to prevent abuses?

Cheap, small, noiseless and practically invisible, drones take snooping to a whole new level. Equipped with super-high-powered lenses, infrared and ultraviolet imaging, radar that can see through walls, video analytics and “swarm” technologies that use a group of drones that operate in concert to allow surveillers to watch an entire city, these devices are made to be intrusive.

In other words, we are on a fast track to becoming a society under routine, pervasive surveillance. As the American Civil Liberties Union put it in an excellent December 2011 report on the UAV threat, such a development “would profoundly change the character of public life in the United States.”

It’s worth adding that public authorities are not the only ones getting UAVs. Corporations have a keen interest in their potential for surreptitious monitoring of environmentalists, union leaders, protesters and competitors. Plus, divorce lawyers, private investigators, political operatives and others who snoop for a living will surely find drones attractive. Hobbyists and survivalists are already building their own. And won’t criminals get them, too?

The goal of drone pushers is to have a startling 30,000 of these pilotless contrivances zipping through the air by 2020. Our nation’s entire commercial fleet of passenger and cargo planes numbers only about 7,000. And lest you think that 30,000 drones is an industry fantasy, a map compiled from military records discloses that as of last June the Pentagon alone already had 64 drone bases throughout our country, with another 22 bases planned. The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 prohibits the military from operating on American soil, but there it is.

The good news is that the industry and its cohorts have been recently stunned by a remarkable left-right counterpunch. They are not only being confronted by such progressive opponents as the ACLU, CodePink, Democratic Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Ron Wyden of Oregon, but also a determined bunch of Republican privacy defenders in Congress and the media.

Not only is this a fight that grassroots people can win against the profiteers and privacy invaders, but it’s one we must win. For more information, go to epic.org.

Jim Hightower is national radio commentator, columnist and author.

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