Within weeks and possibly days, President Obama is likely to sign into law a bill that will bring unmanned aerial vehicles - drones - into US general airspace, crisscrossing the country in company with passenger planes and other human-carrying aircraft.
The story of how planes without on-board pilots will gain entry into our crowded airspace, where birds are life threatening, possibly within the next three years, is one involving campaign contributions, jobs and fear. As we will see, safety appears not to be the top priority.
I became aware of the pro-drone legislation from a February 10, 2011, Syracuse Post Standard report that Sen. Charles Schumer (D-New York) was supporting an amendment to the pending Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization bill (S. 223) that would create test zones for the introduction of drones into general airspace.
Senator Schumer was interested in the pro-drone amendment because MQ-9 Reaper drones, killer drones that are flying over Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, are stationed at Hancock Air Base near Syracuse. However, FAA safety restrictions have limited drone flights out of Hancock.
"If Schumer's legislative move succeeds this week," said the Post Standard, "it would help ensure the future of 1,215 jobs at the (air) base in Mattydale (New York) and potentially lead to millions of dollars in radar research contracts for local defense companies."
Bad Drones - Good Drones?
Drones have a grisly war history of misidentification. For example, on April 11, 2011, The Los Angeles Times carried a story of how a failure of US Air Force drone operators at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada to accurately identify the enemy led to the deaths in February 2010 of at least 15 non-combatant Afghani men, the wounding of 12 more and the deaths of a woman and three children.
"Technology can occasionally give you a false sense of security that you can see everything, that you can hear everything, that you know everything," said Air Force Major Gen. James O. Poss, who oversaw the Air Force investigation, according to the Times. "I really do think we have learned from this."
The newspaper said that survivors were compensated with $2,900 and families of the dead got $4,800.
Drones like the Reaper are also used for assassination, killing people without trial or conviction, a violation of international law, compounded by the problem of misidentification.
The Reaper can also be used strictly for surveillance and there are a variety of drones that can perform either killer or surveillance functions. Drones are also being produced for commercial uses, which include scanning land and oceans for agricultural, mining and fishing enterprises.
Given the deadly record of drones, I and others in New York State and elsewhere, moved to lobby Senator Schumer to end his support of the drone amendment.
We knew we were starting very late. On February 15, we presented a letter (appearing at the end of this article) at Senator Schumer's Peekskill, New York, office urging him to abandon the drone amendment. He did not respond and his staff did not provide any information to us until well after the FAA reauthorization bill, with the pro-drone language embodied in an omnibus amendment, cleared the Senate on February 17.
According to Open Secrets.org, Senator Schumer received $10,000 for his 2010 re-election campaign from Lockheed Martin. Lockheed Martin is one of at least 50 companies making drones of various sizes and types and it produces Hellfire missiles, used by drones and other aircraft. Lockheed employs 2,200 in Syracuse.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) also supported the drone amendment, saying in a press release: "This bill is about making southwest Ohio a critical part of this high-growth initiative. UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) could be used for a host of important purposes, from patrolling the border, to surveying Kandahar province, to combating drug smuggling and it's critical that Wright-Patterson Air Force Base plays a key role in their development and testing. I've worked on a bipartisan basis - first with (former) Sen. (George) Voinovich and now with Sen. (Rob) Portman - to enable the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright Patterson and the Springfield National Guard to test unmanned aerial systems in Southwest Ohio."
Among other Senate supporters of the drone amendment were Sens. Kent Conrad (D-North Dakota) and John Hoeven (R-North Dakota), whose state seeks to be a center of drone development and where the University of North Dakota claims to be the first in offering a four-year degree program for drone pilots "hoping to take the sticks in a field expected to swell to a $20 billion industry over the next decade."
Senator Hoeven said on the Senate floor, in support of the amendment:
"We're already flying UAVs in airspace all over the world. Now we need to open the skies for them at home to make our nation more secure, our communities safer and our economy more dynamic, creating jobs and opportunities in our country. If we don't you can be sure other nations will."
(Note: Open Secrets shows no major aerospace companies contributing to Senators Brown or Hoeven in 2010; Senator Conrad received $22,600 in 2010 from Carlyle Group, which owns ARINC, a company with drone business.)
With Senate approval of the FAA bill, our anti-drone lobbying shifted to the House of Representatives where the FAA reauthorization (H.R. 658) containing pro-drone amendments similar to those in the Senate was still under consideration. While the senate drone legislation did not set a deadline for drone entry into general US skyways; a House amendment, which was ultimately approved, sets a deadline of September 30, 2015, for integration of commercial drones.
Gliding on Zephyrs of Cash
I thought that it might be possible to strip the drone amendments from reauthorization bill with last-minute floor action by one or two House allies. However, as I watched the House action on the FAA bill on C-Span on March 31, it became clear that the Republican leadership was determined to win every amendment that it put forward and to crush amendments put forward by Democrats. None of the members of Congress we hoped would act, including Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-New York), Brian Higgins (D-New York) and John Tierney (D-Massachusetts), wished to make a comment, much less a fight, over the amendments and it may have been they felt is was not worth the effort.
Had there been more time for contacting Congressional aides and identifying drone supporters, it would also have been clear that there was strong aerospace industry activity in both houses of Congress for the drone amendments.
The drone amendments that ended up in the House bill came from Rep. John Mica (R-Florida), chair of the House transportation Committee, and Rep. Candice Miller (R-Michigan), a member of the transportation and homeland security committees and also a member of the Congressional Unmanned Systems (drone) Caucus, comprised of 43 members of the House.
Congressman Mica did not speak in any detail on the floor of the House about his drone amendment, referring to it only as being included in an omnibus amendment package. He introduced into the record a letter from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an industry group, saying: "Without a doubt, UAS (unmanned aerial systems) will have a tremendous impact on the aerospace industry and aid in driving economic development in many regions across the country. How quickly new job creation and economic benefits become a reality however depends on the progress and timeliness of UAS integration efforts." The Mica amendment package was approved 251-168.
Congresswoman Miller's remarks in support of her amendment, which was approved by a voice vote, focused on the use of drones for law enforcement and border security:
"My amendment is designed to help expedite and to improve the process by which FAA works with government agencies to incorporate unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs as they're commonly called, into the National Airspace System. Currently, Mr. Chairman, law enforcement agencies across the country, from Customs and Border Protection to local police departments, et cetera, are ready to embrace the new technology and to start utilizing UAVs in the pursuit of enforcing the law and protecting our border as well.
"However, the FAA has been very hesitant to give authorization to these UAVs due to limited air space and restrictions that they have. I certainly can appreciate those concerns; but when we're talking about Customs and Border Protection or the FBI, what have you, we are talking about missions of national security. And certainly there's nothing more important than that. It was a very, very lengthy exercise to get the FAA to authorize the use of UAVs on the southern border. While they're finally being utilized down there, we are certainly a long way from fully utilizing these technologies."
After the pro-drone amendments passed the House, Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-California) chair of the Congressional drone caucus, released a statement saying that the House FAA bill "promotes the safe integration of unmanned systems into national airspace. Carefully integrating these systems by 2015 will improve our border defenses, public safety and emergency response systems.
"Although this bill is a step in the right direction, I have concerns with the FAA's languid Certification of Authorization requirement for public unmanned systems."
Congressman Mica received the following contributions for his 2010 re-election campaign from these companies involved with drones, according Open Secrets:
Boeing - $10,000
Honeywell - $10,000 (makes engines for the Reaper and Predator drones)
Lockheed Martin - $10,000
Raytheon - $10,000
And for Congresswoman Miller in her 2010 race:
Honeywell - $10,000
General Dynamics - $8,500
Ford - $10,000 (Ford engines are used in a Boeing drone, although as a Michigan representative if is likely she would get Ford money in any case)
Congressman McKeon received the following contributions among those for his 2010 campaign:
Lockheed Martin - $52,000
Northrop Grumman - $50,500
Boeing - $28,900
His combined contributions from "defense aerospace" and "defense electronics" were $232,900.
We were hoping that Congressman Maurice Hinchey (D-New York) might assist in opposing the drone amendments given his opposition to our wars, in spite of his membership on the drone caucus. But we found that his aide wanted to talk only about Hinchey's opposition to the wars, not about drones. In 2010, the following contractors with interests in drones were among his major contributors:
Lockheed Martin - $10,000
Boeing - $10,000
Honeywell - $10,000
L-3 Communications - $9,500
All the biggest aerospace contractors have an interest of one kind or another in drone manufacture. The top Congressional aerospace campaign contributor in 2009-2010 was Boeing, $2.57 million, followed by Lockheed Martin, $2.4 million, according to Open Secrets.org.
A Department of Defense summary of the 2012 Obama military budget notes:
"The fiscal 2012 budget continues strong funding for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that enhance intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. The base budget includes </b>$4.8 billion<b> to develop and procure additional Global Hawk Class (RQ-4), Predator Class (MQ 1/9) and other less expensive, low-altitude systems." [Emphasis added.]
Time magazine reported in 2008 that Barack Obama's campaign "pocketed $870,165 from defense contractor sources, 34% more than the $647,313 in contributions McCain's campaign received from the same sector."
At this writing, the Senate and House versions of the FAA reauthorization bill, which cover a wide range of aviation concerns, will be submitted soon to a conference committee made up of members of both houses of Congress. A compromise bill will be presented to both houses for a vote and then sent to the White House for signature. The conference committee could meet as early as the week beginning April 18, if not before. Action should be completed at the latest by May 30, when the current FAA authorization expires.
It is obvious that many in Congress have embraced drones of all kinds for money, for themselves and their constituents, willfully ignoring what drones are doing in war or the real dangers they will bring with them into the skies over the US.
In March 2010, Congressman Tierney held drone hearings and heard testimony that addressed ways in which the US use of killer drones has violated international law.
Ideally, Congress would by now have banned the use of drones for assassination and limited their battlefield use to situations in which troops on the ground can make visual identification of enemy forces. This is presuming that the US is involved in wars that do not violate international law, unlike the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
As for use of drones over the United States, at this writing, the FAA restricts drone flights to specific zones where they can be carefully segregated from general air traffic. As suggested above, the military, some law enforcement officials and drone manufacturers have been pushing the FAA to move fast to allow drones to fly much more freely. The FAA has resisted quick introduction for safety reasons, as indicated in the following testimony by Henry Krakowski, chief operating officer of the FAA air traffic organization before Senate Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Aviation Operations in September 2010:
"As the most complex airspace in the world, the NAS (National Airspace System) encompasses an average of over 100,000 aviation operations per day, including commercial air traffic, cargo operations, business jets, etc. Additionally, there are over 238,000 general aviation aircraft that represent a wide range of sophistication and capabilities that may enter the system at any time. There are over 500 air traffic control facilities, more than 12,000 air navigation facilities and over 19,000 airports, not to mention the thousands of other communications, surveillance, weather reporting and other aviation support facilities. With this volume of traffic and high degree of complexity, the FAA maintains an extremely safe airspace through diligent oversight and the strong commitment to our safety mission ...
"While UASs (unmanned aerial systems) offer a promising new technology, the limited safety and operational data available to date does not support the expedited or full integration in the NAS. Because current available data is insufficient to allow unfettered integration of UASs into the NAS - where the public travels every day - the FAA must continue to move forward deliberately and cautiously, in accordance with our safety mandate."
At the same time that Congress is pushing the FAA to allow drones to fly everywhere, the House version of the FAA bill would roll back the agency's budget to 2008 levels, allocating $57.8 billion for a four-year period.The larger issue is whether drone technology can ever be perfected to the point where pilots on the ground are going to be able to look out for danger in the same way pilots in the air can. As Air Force General Poss said in the quote at the beginning of this article, technology can lead to unwarranted confidence. It seems certain that if Congress, the military, law enforcement agencies and the aerospace industry get their way, we will be having drone hits on passenger aircraft just as we are having bird hits now.
In addition, there is no restriction in the FAA reauthorization against drones flying in US airspace carrying weapons, raising the specter of accidental firings at other aircraft and at people and objects on the ground and of mid-air explosions from accidental hits on other aircraft. The Pentagon is also planning drone aircraft that can carry nuclear weapons.
2. Who Will Watch the Watchers?
Drones also present a real threat to personal privacy and safety. Drones are envisioned as eyes in the sky for police departments as well as for border patrols. Although members of Congress touted drones for surveillance, nothing in the FAA legislation discusses when surveillance can be undertaken or any restrictions on use of material gathered in drone surveillance.
This becomes of even greater concern in view of the problems of drone misidentification, demonstrated in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
There is also the possibility, not addressed in the FAA reauthorization, of police arming their drones to fight crime, which raises the fundamental issues of misidentification, due process and collateral damage, among others.
This article is obviously being written at a very late date. How could we have known sooner about the pro-drone amendments and their implications?
3. Citizen Surveillance
At this point, there is no anti-war legislative action office in Washington, DC, that is devoted solely to: (1) providing continuing information to grassroots organizers on weapons and war funding; and (2) building grassroots response organizations in Congressional districts.
Matt Southworth of the Friends Committee on National Legislation was helpful in identifying some Congressional aides who might wish to help address the drone amendments, but he was stretched thin and had only limited time to make calls, much less visits. Ideally grassroots anti-war groups would have the benefit of one or two people in Washington who would follow weapons and war funding legislation, such as the drone amendments, and provide early warning to local anti-war organizers.
A model for this would be Bread for the World, which develops grassroots organizations to lobby Congress on hunger and food policy issues.
This points also to the need for local educational groups that work to inform the public not only on current wars but on business/job alternatives to the military contracting work being done by plants in their areas.
What we need immediately is legislation banning the use of US drones for assassination and banning drones from US general aviation skyways.
* * * *
Senator Charles Schumer February 15, 2011
One Park Place, Suite 100
Peekskill, New York 10566
Dear Senator Schumer:
On February 10, 2011 you issued a press release saying that you want to amend the Federal Aviation Administration law so that air space will be expanded around Syracuse for testing of "cutting edge military drones." You said this will "unleash millions of investment into the region and create jobs."
For the reasons outlined in the attached flyer, we the undersigned urge you to reverse course and work to end all drone testing, training and operation in New York State, including drone operations at Fort Drum in Watertown NY.
We want to emphasize here that the atrocities and assassinations being committed by the United States using drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Yemen are unconscionable. The idea that you would use job creation as a reason for encouraging the development and use of these weapons is morally unacceptable.
Every single minute, $300,000 goes into our wars. Because of this spending, the United States cannot meet the educational and employment needs of its citizens. For you to tout job creation from weapons building under these circumstances is astounding.
Harriet Ackerman, Hastings on Hudson
Wayne Alt, Buffalo
John Amidon, Albany
Sondra Armer, Croton on Hudson
Kevin Ascher, Mount Kisco
Frank Brodhead, Hastings on Hudson
Brooklyn for Peace
Elaine Brower, World Can't Wait, Military Families Speak Out, New York City
Russell Brown, Veterans for Peace, Buffalo
Frank Carbone, Newburgh
Joe Catron, Brooklyn
Ben Chitty, Co-cordinator Tappan Zee Brigade, Veterans for Peace Chapt. 61, Yonkers
Martha Conte, White Plains
Andrew Courtney, Croton on Hudson
Pamela Daly, Hartsdale
Don DeBar, Ossining
Sandra Dolman, Peekskill
Gayle Dunkelberger, Katonah
Roger Drew, Greenburgh
Marilyn Ellie, Cortlandt
Gail L. Evans
Sarah Flounders, International Action Center, New York City
Kathryn Joy Fuller, Syracuse
Carol Gable, Gaithersburg, MD (formerly of Mamaroneck)
Felice Gelman, Tarrytown
Mirene Ghossen, New Rochelle
Jack Gilroy, Endwell
Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, Stoney Point
Dr. Arthur Grant, Chappaqua
Teresa Gutierrez, May 1st Coalition for Worker and Immigrant Rights, New York City
Dennis Hanratty, New Rochelle
Mary Herbst, Grand Island
Judith A. and George E. Homanich, Buffalo
Joan Indusi, Ossining
Dottie Ji, Central Jersey Coalition Against Endless War
Agnes Johnson, Bronx
Mary Johnson, Mt. Kisco
Lorraine and Sam Katen, Mamaroneck
Kathy Kelly, Co-coordinator, Voices for Creative Nonviolence, Chicago, IL
Nada Khader, White Plains
Ed Kinane, Syracuse
Charlotte Koons, Women Opposed to the Nuclear Threat, Northport
Cecelia Lavan, New Rochelle
Maxine Lawrence, Ossining
Leila Luvka, Somers
Jeff Mackler, Administrative Committee, United National AntiWar Committee
Kwame Madden, Peekskill
Ann Marwick, Yorktown Heights
Kathryn Mang-Haag, Kenmore
Larry McGovern, Dobbs Ferry
Nick Mottern, Hastings on Hudson
Dan M. Nalven, Ossining
Valerie Niederhoffer, Buffalo
Ardeshir and Ellie Ommani, Co-Founders, American-Iranian Friendship Committee, Armonk
Pepi Powell, Peekskill
Peg Rapp, Washington Heights Counter-recruitment, New York City
Ken Roberts, Yonkers
Joanne Robinson, Yonkers
Enrico Rodrigues, White Plains
Victoria Ross, Buffalo
Meredith Ryan, Mount Vernon
Lisa Savage, Brunswick, ME
Pat Sorbini, Buffalo
David Swanson, author of War is a Lie, Co-founder WarIsACrime.org, Washington, DC
Syracuse Peace Council
United National AntiWar Committee
Roland Van Deusen, Clayton
Rose Viviano, Syracuse
Bennett Weiss, Newburgh