As drones — otherwise known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — become increasingly popular in military operations and civilian law enforcement, their deployment is coming under greater scrutiny from lawmakers and special interest groups. The Obama administration's open policy of targeted drone strikes has proved particularly controversial, while the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has attempted to raise awareness of the use of drones by police departments and other organizations across the US.
Jun 26, 2014
A panel composed of former military officials, legal advisors, and others believes that America's drone strike program could be creating a more unstable, violent world. In a report released today, a group of former military and government officials said that relatively low-risk, increasingly common missile strikes by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) "risks increasing instability and escalating conflicts," as other countries emulate America's strategy of targeting suspected terrorists even outside official war zones. While it said UAVs should be "neither demonized nor glorified," it urged the Obama administration to consider the effect they were having on warfare, including a potential slippery slope as other countries consider their own drone programs.Read Article >
Jun 23, 2014
Under orders from a US appeals court, the Obama administration has released a memo justifying the killing of American citizens with a targeted "drone strike." The memo presents a case for killing Anwar al-Awlaki, an al-Qaeda propagandist who was killed in Yemen in 2011. The strike on al-Awlaki has been widely debated since then, especially after a separate attack inadvertently killed al-Awlaki's 16-year-old son Abdulrahman. Now, thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request made by the ACLU and others, it's possible to read both the court's reasoning and the 30-page legal debate on whether he and others could be killed without due process under the CIA's drone program.Read Article >
While this memo has not been released publicly before, Senators have been given access to it. Attorney General Eric Holder has previously summarized the justification, saying that targeted killings — whether by unmanned aerial vehicles or manned aircraft — can be carried out if the citizen in question poses an imminent threat, cannot be captured, and can be killed without violating the more general laws of war. So far, four Americans are known to have died through the targeted strike program, including al-Awlaki and his son. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has estimated that over 3,500 people in total have been killed under the program.
May 31, 2014
A pair of unarmed Global Hawk surveillance drones have been deployed to Japan by the US Air Force, possibly to keep an eye on North Korea and naval operations in China. According to the Associated Press, the drones will use the Misawa Air Base in northern Japan through October, though the US government has not provided any details on the missions that will be carried out.Read Article >
Apr 25, 2014
Last week, Saudi Arabia bought its first drone fleet, according to a dispatch from Tactical Reports. Saudi Crown Prince Salman met with Chinese General Wang Guanzhong to sign a contract for a shipment of Chinese Wing Loong drones, also known as Pterodactyls. The drones that make up the shipment are designed to mimic America's Predator drone, with surveillance capabilities and enough lift to carry two matched air-to-ground missiles.Read Article >
Apr 2, 2014
Two members of Congress have introduced a bill that they hope will force the White House to disclose how many people a year are killed by drones. Today, Representatives Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Walter Jones (R-NC) announced the Targeted Lethal Force Transparency Act, which would mandate an annual report of everyone killed or injured in strikes by unmanned aerial vehicles. It would take effect retroactively, requiring the Obama administration to produce data for the last five years in the interest of tracking trends.Read Article >
For years, the American targeted killing program has taken place under cover of secrecy, although leaked documents and external reporting have provided details about drone strike casualties. Debate has often focused on the killing of American citizens, particularly the 16-year-old son of alleged top al-Qaeda member Anwar al-Awlaki, who was not specifically targeted but died in a 2011 strike. Since 2009, Anwar al-Awlaki is the only known citizen known to have been killed intentionally, although officials are reportedly debating whether to authorize the killing of another American member of al-Qaeda. But the overall cost of the targeted killing program is much higher. In 2013, a Council on Foreign Relations report estimates, 253 people were killed in Yemen and Pakistan, 31 of them civilians. A total of several thousand casualties are estimated since the program began in 2004, around 500 of them civilians.
Feb 10, 2014
The NSA's surveillance programs are often used to help carry out drone strikes on targets, according to a new report, and sometimes there are unintended victims. An anonymous former drone operator for Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) told The Intercept — a new publication helmed by Glenn Greenwald, who broke the first of many NSA revelations last year — that the US military and CIA use the NSA's metadata analysis and phone-tracking abilities to identify airstrike targets without confirming their veracity on the ground. The claims were corroborated by documents provided by the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.Read Article >
While the former JSOC operator says that the practice has been helpful in taking out known terrorists and insurgents that attack with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Afghanistan, he also maintains that innocent people have "absolutely" been killed as a result of the technology, which is known to be unreliable. Some targets reportedly use up to 16 SIM cards in an attempt to evade the NSA's tracking, or lend their phones to friends or family members while unaware of the surveillance.
Dec 31, 2013
The Council on Foreign Relations has released its estimates on the year's covert targeted killings in Yemen and Pakistan, carried out primarily by drones. The numbers are based on reports from The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, The Long War Journal, and The New America Foundation. Each source provides slightly different numbers, but the Long War Journal figures estimate a total of 54 strikes and 253 casualties, of whom 31 were civilians. The Council estimates a total of 3,520 casualties since the drone strike program began in 2004, of whom 457 have been civilians.Read Article >
The numbers are only estimates, as data on civilian casualties is notoriously unreliable, but CFR is straightforward about its goals in releasing the report. "The current trajectory of US drone strike policies is unsustainable," author Micah Zenko wrote in his initial report last year, to which these new numbers are an update. "Without reform from within, drones risk becoming an unregulated, unaccountable vehicle for states to deploy lethal force with impunity."
Dec 30, 2013
As the debate over military drone use rages on, The Guardian has published an unexpected voice on the topic, that of a former US drone operator who openly questions the program. An imagery analyst for the Air Force from 2009 to 2012, Heather Linebaugh says the people making decisions about the drone program are mostly ignorant of the brutality of the casualties inflicted. "I wish I could ask them a few questions," Linebaugh writes. "I'd start with: 'How many women and children have you seen incinerated by a Hellfire missile?'"Read Article >
Dec 28, 2013
The $552 billion 2014 military defense budget signed by President Barack Obama will continue to fund high-tech cyber and unmanned aircraft operations. The budget, which grants central Cyber Command $68 million in operational costs alongside more money for research and individual unit operations, instructs agencies to work towards controlling the proliferation of "cyber weapons." That means stopping the sale or spread of malicious code for "criminal, terrorist, or military activities" while allowing governments and businesses to use it for "legitimate" self-defense.Read Article >
Dec 20, 2013
Asked about drones, the average person will likely name the Reaper and Predator unmanned attack planes, or the tiny octocopters that Amazon hopes can deliver your packages. But the military category alone is far larger: Israel's small triangular Harpy, China's huge four-winged Soaring Dragon. Artist Ruben Pater's Drone Survival Guide is ostensibly for use in spotting and evading these drones, collecting the above craft and more in a birdwatching poster-style set of silhouettes. Like the "Stealth Wear" line of clothing, it's even theoretically designed to protect the user, printed on a mirrored surface that could be used to try to confuse a drone's camera. Unlike Stealth Wear or other more general commentaries, though, the survival guide turns drones into something knowable and specific, not a frightening catch-all category but a series of real, individual aircraft.Read Article >
The drone survival guide, which started as Pater's graphic design masters project, is a lot like Bridle's drone recognition kit, and both pieces evoke the plane-spotting kits and cards used during World War II. "Of course, the idea you can hide from UAVs or be safe from them if they have harmful intentions is absurd," says Pater, although the back of the guide describes simple tactics like blocking your heat signature with a space blanket or more complex ones like hacking a GPS signal. Something like the aluminum poster surface, though in principle it could work for evasion, is more useful for its symbolic meaning, reminding readers that surveillance drones are in a way "sophisticated mirrors."
Dec 12, 2013
A drone strike killed at least 13 civilians today when a wedding convoy in Yemen was mistaken for an al-Qaeda gathering, according to a Reuters report based on local sources. Local leaders said the strike came from an unmanned drone, a tactic frequently used by US forces in contested areas. Five others were injured in the strike, which took place in the central al-Bayda region.Read Article >
Aug 21, 2013
Yesterday morning at 8:41AM EST, a NASA airplane took off into the gray sky over Wallops Island, Virginia, heading straight for a massive dust cloud off the coast of Africa. While flying directly into such inhospitable conditions may seem like a death wish, the pilots of this particular plane weren't in any danger. Instead, they were back on safe, solid ground in Wallops and in Dryden, California, controlling the unmanned aircraft remotely. And the success of their mission could not only help scientists better predict hurricanes — it could also help reset some of the negative public opinion about drone usage. That's at least the hope of the company behind the drone, military contractor Northrop Grumman, which points out that the very same type of aircraft was used to help find and kill Osama bin Laden.Read Article >
"If we publicize a bit more the nontraditional uses it might change some perceptions," says Jessica Burtness, communications representative at Northrop Grumman's Global Hawk division. "I know our unmanned aircraft have been used largely for war-fighting and combat purposes, but they've also been used for humanitarian purposes and for research by NASA." Luckily for Northrop, NASA is taking it upon itself to help publicize its new Global Hawk mission, holding a public media briefing at Wallops on September 10th.
Aug 19, 2013
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is set to choose six locations to host large-scale drone test flights by the end of the year, and nearly half of the nation's states have some hope of being chosen. Applications have come in from 24 states for the chance at hosting one of the sites — but some states aren't leaving their chances entirely up to luck: The Washington Post reports that North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Utah, and Wyoming all took to a drone conference in Washington, DC last week to highlight what they'd be able to bring to the world of drone development.Read Article >
Each of the states was represented by booths at the Unmanned Systems conference, which is held by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. According to the Post, Representative Mike Turner from Ohio toured the show floor while his state's booth handed out Ohio-shaped cookies. Utah reportedly hoped to attract visitors to its booth with a large inflatable yeti holding a drone, while North Dakota took a more traditional route, having its governor, Drew Wrigley, make an appearance and a speech. Though the showmanship was only presented to the conference floor, the Post reports that it's all part of an effort to sway the FAA in each state's favor.
Aug 16, 2013Read Article >
The implications of drones â and remote control warfare â remain difficult to grasp. The debate's become so politically charged and generally contentious that it can be hard to know what to think. Are they killing machines gone out of control or an effective and reasonable means of waging war against a lawless organization like al-Qaeda? The Atlantic's Mark Bowden (author of books like Black Hawk Down)Â has penned a brilliant article for this month's issue to try and shed some light on this revolutionary form of warfare. It's a lengthy read, but Bowden addresses the issue from all sides to reveal that while the program is both ingenious and dangerous, it can be a justified and effective tool if used transparently and by the rule of law. If you want to be well-informed about one of the most significant developments in modern warfare, you'd do well to set aside some time toÂ give it a read.
Aug 13, 2013
The US Central Intelligence Agency has finally come forward and admitted it does have documents about US drone strikes, but says it can't share them with the public because doing so would pose a massive security risk to the country. As the CIA stated in a document filed in federal district court in Washington, DC last week (and made public today): "The details of those records, including the number and nature of responsive documents, remain currently and properly classified facts exempt from disclosure."Read Article >
The agency also spells out what would happen were it to reveal the documents, which many transparency advocates have sought:
Jul 30, 2013
The first commercial drones have been cleared for takeoff in the US. Last Friday, two unmanned aerial vehicles were approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which for the first time will allow businesses to fully operate drones over American soil. The FAA says that "a major energy company" intends to put them to use beginning next month. One will be flown over the Alaskan coast, monitoring ice flows and the migration of whales, while the other will be used to support response crews dealing with oil spills and wildlife surveillance north of Alaska over the Beaufort Sea.Read Article >
While different types of small drones are already being used inside the US, they've largely been approved for public agencies and testing purposes — not for general use by businesses. The FAA says that this first approval is a milestone, and that it will allow drones to be integrated into the United States' airspace. That integration became a requirement last year, following the passage of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act. Both of the approved drones — Insitu's Scan Eagle X200 and AeroVironment’s PUMA — fall under the FAA's "small" size class, though they have wingspans of nine feet and bodies around 4.5 feet long. The drones had previously been authorized for military use, and were designed with surveillance purposes in mind.
Jul 26, 2013
Earlier this year, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) publicly revealed for the first time in a hearing that it has been using drones to conduct surveillance operations inside the country, a striking admission, given that domestic drone is a subject of intense debate and there's still not a clear set of rules governing the practice. Now, under prodding from Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), the FBI has finally offered a few more details about its use of drones, namely, in how many cases it's deployed them, and its rationale for not seeking a search warrant. "Since late 2006, the FBI has conducted surveillance using UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] in eight criminal cases and two national security cases," wrote Stephen D. Kelly, the FBI's assistant director for the Office of Congressional Affairs, in a letter to Paul. In a footnote added to this statement, Kelly explains drones were also approved in three other cases, but the FBI didn't use them.Read Article >
Kelly touts the success of the FBI using a surveillance drone in one in highly publicized case, in which it helped rescue a five-year-old boy from a kidnapper back in April. He notes that none of the drones the FBI uses are armed with any weapons, lethal or otherwise, and that drone use "must be approved by senior FBI management at FBI headquarters and in the relevant FBI field office." But the new information raises many more questions than it answers, namely: how many different times have the FBI actually flown drones on each of these cases? For how long? What specific information was captured by the drones during flight? And, what types of drones were used?
Jul 20, 2013
A judge is fighting back against the Obama Administration's claims that it should be able to bypass the courts system in ordering drone killings of US citizens located outside the country and not in combat zones, whom it deems to be terrorist threats. As the New York Times reports, US District Court Judge Rosemary M. Collyer in Washington, DC, hasn't made any official rulings on the matter of whether such killings of US citizens abroad are legal — yet. But on Friday, she broadly condemned the notion that's been put forth repeatedly by the White House and the Justice Department that neither trials of suspects, nor court oversight of such killings, are required. "Are you saying that a U.S. citizen targeted by the United States in a foreign country has no constitutional rights?... Where is the limit to this?" Collyer asked a Justice Department attorney during a hearing in a trial brought by relatives of US citizens Anwar al-Awlaki, his 16-year-old son, and another man, all of whom were killed in overseas drone strikes in Yemen. "The limit is the courthouse door," Collyer said, answering her own question rhetorically.Read Article >
Al-Awlaki, who was killed by a US drone strike in September 2011, was an open member of al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization behind the September 11th, 2001 attacks. Despite his association, he was still a US citizen, and many civil liberties advocates and groups in the US have come out against the idea that the government should be able to order the killing of any citizen it deems a threat, as long as they're outside of the country. Inside the US, the government can't order the execution of someone without first charging them in a trial, per the fifth and 14th amendments to the Constitution, which guarantee "due process." Even then it's up to the courts to determine whether a person is guilty and what their punishment is — whether it's death or something lesser. But just this May, US Attorney General Eric Holder, the head of the Justice Department, argued that such drone strikes abroad without a trial were lawful, writing: "the Constitution does not prohibit the government it establishes from taking action to protect the American people from the threats posed by terrorists who hide in faraway countries and continually plan and launch plots against the U.S. homeland."
Jul 18, 2013
Normally, if you shot down an aircraft owned by the federal government, you'd be in trouble. But a small Colorado town named Deer Park is looking to carve out an exception, proposing a $100 bounty to any hunters who shoot down unmanned drones that appear to be "owned or operated by the United States federal government." The ordinance would also require a drone-hunting license, issued after a background check and a $25 fee.Read Article >
The resident who drafted the ordinance, Philip Steel, was quick to say he doesn't expect many to cash in on the bounty. "This is a very symbolic ordinance," Steel told local reporter Amanda Kost. "Basically, I do not believe in the idea of a surveillance society."
Jun 19, 2013
FBI Director Robert Mueller has admitted that the Bureau uses aerial drones to conduct surveillance within the domestic United States. During his testimony at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier today, Mueller bluntly told Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) that the FBI uses drones, but does so "in a very, very minimal way, and seldom." Later, after being pressed by Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA), he added that "It's very seldom used and generally used in a particular incident where you need the capability."Read Article >
"I think the greatest threat to the privacy of Americans is the drone, and the use of the drone and the very few regulations that are on it today, and the booming industry of commercial drones," said Feinstein, who ironically has spent much of the past few weeks adamantly defending the NSA's warrantless surveillance programs, which critics have argued do not have adequate oversight. When asked whether the FBI has implemented guidelines for the use of drones, Mueller admitted the agency is only in the "initial stages" of doing so. "I will tell you that our footprint is very small. We have very few of limited use, and we're exploring not only the use, but the necessary guidelines for that use," he said.
May 23, 2013
Over four years into his tenure, President Barack Obama says he is reining in drone strikes. In a speech on the future of counterterrorism, Obama announced that he had signed a presidential guidance statement on drone warfare, codifying the cases in which it is justifiable. Targets, he says, must pose a "continuing, imminent threat" to US persons, and it must be nearly certain that the target is present in an area and non-combatants will not be injured or killed.Read Article >
May 22, 2013
For the first time, US Attorney General Eric Holder has admitted that four American citizens have been killed in extrajudicial strikes by unmanned aircraft. The New York Times has obtained a letter sent to Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, disclosing details about the Obama Administration's drone program. In it, Holder gave the names of the four citizens killed since 2009: Muslim cleric and alleged terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki, his teenage son Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, Samir Khan, and Jude Kenan Mohammed.Read Article >
Of the four, only Anwar al-Awlaki was specifically targeted for a strike. Samir Khan was caught in the same strike as al-Awlaki, and Mohammed and al-Awlaki's son were killed in separate strikes. While the details of these strikes were known before, Obama's White House has been notoriously tight-lipped about its drone program until very recently. In the letter, Holder defended the administration's decision to order the strikes without due process. "The Administration's legal views on this weighty issue have been clear and consistent over time," he wrote. Al-Awlaki, he said, "posed a continuing and imminent threat of violent attack against the United States," and capturing him was unfeasible.
May 19, 2013
The AP reports that President Barack Obama will discuss the legality of his administration's controversial drone program, as well as other counterterrorism measures, during a speech on Thursday. The speech comes after mounting pressure on the administration from Democratic and Republican lawmakers, as well as advocacy groups, who have demanded greater transparency regarding the government's legal justification for drone strikes.Read Article >
The US government has been criticized for failing to acknowledge the extent of its use of drones for targeted killings, as well as the opaque legal justification behind their use. In April, the American Civil Liberties Union told Wired that "the targeted killing program raises serious questions about government power in a constitutional democracy." While the extent of the program has largely been kept hidden from the public, secret documents revealed last month showed that the targeted killing program was not restricted to "high-level" targets, and that "at least" 265 of the 482 people killed in the 12-month period ending in September 2011 were "unknown extremists."
May 15, 2013
The US Navy this week successfully launched an unmanned plane from an aircraft carrier, marking what officials are calling "an inflection point" in the military's use of drone aircraft. The X-47B prototype drone, manufactured by Northrop Grumman, took off from aboard the USS George HW Bush Tuesday, and made two low approaches before circling back to land. The test, held off the coast of Virginia, marks the first time that the Navy has ever launched an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) from an aircraft carrier.Read Article >
May 13, 2013
A decision from Pakistan's highest court in Peshawar has ruled that US drone strikes on tribal lands have taken place illegally and in violation of human rights.Read Article >
The court ruled that the Pakistani government "must ensure that no drone strike takes place in the future," and has drawn up a resolution against the strikes for the Foreign Ministry to present at the UN. It added that if the US tries to block the resolution, Pakistan "should think about breaking diplomatic ties with the US." Pakistan's newly-elected Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, has also vowed to end the drone attacks, saying they are "against the national sovereignty and a challenge for the country's autonomy and independence.”