Drones are a smart way to start a trend on Twitter; D.C.-area drivers tweeted feverishly when they mistook the Navy’s X-47B drone traveling on a flatbed truck for a UFO. But the way President Obama employs drones is unconstitutional and therefore dumb with a capital ‘D.’
Dumb Drones At Home
On Valentine’s Day (politicians know that holidays and weekends are ideal times to pull the wool over our eyes), Obama signed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act. This law allocates $63.6 billion to the Federal Aviation Administration between 2012 and 2015. Basically, it authorizes the FAA to spend billions of taxpayer dollars to loosen and expand drone regulations for both military and private/commercial use.
The Fourth Amendment gives you and me—as American citizens—the right “to be secure in” our private property without the threat of “unreasonable searches and seizures.” And, warrants for any searches must have “probable cause.” The FAA Modernization and Reform Act is unconstitutional because it appears to allow federal agencies to survey American business owners, farmers, landowners and all other private property owners without showing “probable cause” and obtaining warrants.
This law effectively gives the executive branch (the President) the authority to operate independently, without accountability to Congress. The Washington Times reports: “The FAA has issued hundreds of certificates to police and other government agencies, and a handful to research institutions to allow them to fly drones of various kinds over the United States for particular missions. …but the FAA refuses to disclose which agencies have the certificates and what their purposes are.”
The EPA similarly flies piloted planes over the private lands and homes of cattle ranchers in Nebraska and Iowa to scan for possible violations of the Clean Water Act without proper warrants. When federal agencies like the FAA and the EPA regulate private property while ignoring entire constitutional amendments, it is a clear violation of the Constitution’s mandate that the legislative branch, not the executive branch, make laws.
Thankfully, Rep. Austin Scott (R-GA) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) are pushing bills that will require government agencies to get warrants before flying a UFO—err, a drone—over your backyard while you’re grilling steaks in your boxer shorts.
Dumb Drones Abroad
Obama promised to hand major combat operations over to Afghan security forces by the summer of 2013. However, he has quiet plans to fight a puerile, robotic and unconstitutional war against al-Qaida in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia and Yemen using drones instead of boots on the ground.
Using drones, Obama is effectively launching a nebulous war against foreign terrorists—without congressional oversight or public approval—and the risks are high. The Los Angeles Times reports: “Errant drones have been blamed for killing and injuring scores of civilians throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan, giving the U.S. government a black eye.” And TIME Magazine maintains: “Drones may be a cheap and convenient military tool. But they risk dangerous blowback if they alienate and radicalize local populations.”
Blowback from drone casualties is already occurring. In Pakistan this month, Taliban commander Hafiz Gul Bahadur banned 161,000 children from receiving polio vaccinations due to concerns that the CIA would co-opt the polio campaign for clandestine purposes—in the same way that Pakistani doctor Shakil Afridi allegedly helped the CIA track Osama bin Laden with a fake vaccine initiative. Pakistan is one of just three countries in the world where polio remains endemic and the vaccines are therefore vital to maintaining the health of Americans too.
Pakistanis view U.S. drone strikes as a violation of their sovereignty and Yemeni citizens are building up anti-American sentiments due to drone attacks, according to reports from The Washington Post, PBS and TIME. But Defense Secretary Leon Panetta flippantly maintains that our interest in perpetuating drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen is routing al-Qaida. However, his logic is flawed, as Pakistan is no longer a strong global headquarters for al-Qaida leadership and al-Qaida’s critical affiliate, the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has lost its top leader.
Pakistan is no longer the central al-Qaida stronghold because Osama bin Ladin is dead and his star follower, Abu Yahya al-Libi, was killed by a drone strike. U.S. officials have admitted that there is only one “high-value” al-Qaida terrorist leader remaining in Pakistan, namely bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri. And, by nearly all accounts, al-Zawahiri is far weaker and considerably less interested in attacking U.S. soil than bin Ladin was.
Meanwhile, many U.S. terrorist plots have been traced to Yemen’s AQAP and its notorious member, Anwar al-Awlaki, including the 9/11 hijackers, the Christmas Day underwear bomb attempt on a flight to Detroit and the Yemen mail cargo bomb plot against the U.S. But, al-Awlaki was also killed by a drone and ceases to lead and recruit for AQAP.
Because al-Qaida now lacks a strong and central leadership, many congressional leaders believe that does not make sense—constitutionally, practically or ethically—to continue blasting up places like Pakistan and Yemen with drones that also take out scores of innocent civilians.
Traditional drones lack accuracy and can take out entire shops or buildings. And while the new, pint-sized “Switchblade” drone is more accurate, it relies on the judgment of just one lower-level ground soldier. Analysts also worry that the Switchblade’s smaller size makes it susceptible to confiscation by terrorists who will turn around and use the technology against the U.S.
The Obama administration even appears to be hiding civilian casualties from U.S. drone strikes by classifying civilians as “militants” or leaving them out of the death count entirely. On The Colbert Report's May 31 episode, political satirist Stephen Colbert mockingly explains the Obama administration's "process" of ensuring that our drones do not kill innocent civilians and provoke blowback:
Colbert says: '[The New York Times reports that] "…a senior administration official said that the number of civilians killed in drone strikes in Pakistan under Mr. Obama was in the 'single digits.'" That's impressive because those bombs are huge. And, the administration has developed a brilliant system for ensuring that those building-engulfing explosions don't kill non-combatants [civilians]. They just count "…all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants…" They reason that al-Qaida is an isolated fanatical group, so, anyone with them is probably al-Qaida… Now, this isn't just the President executing innocent people around the world by fiat, there is an appeals process. The men are considered terrorists "…unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent," in which case, I'm assuming there is a legal process that un-kills them. …[the administration is effectively] keeping civilian casualties down by saying civilians don't really exist… and if we just keep using logic like that, none of us have to feel guilty about anything."
With Obama’s “dumb and dumber” drone policy, I believe we risk asymmetric blowback, defy foreign sovereignty, and—most alarmingly—violate our own Constitution.