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Drone Summit: Killing and Spying by Remote Control

Congress seems more interested in promoting drone proliferation than in oversight. A Washington, D.C., summit seeks to educate the public on the use and abuse of drones.
 
 
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Drone proliferation is slowly waking up members of the U.S. public who have intensifying concerns about extrajudicial drone killings and about the onset of a surveillance society in America. Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress seems more interested in promoting drone proliferation than in fulfilling its oversight responsibilities.

Three years ago, members of the U.S. House of Representatives formed a special caucus to address issues related to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). For the most part, prior to the formation of the Unmanned Vehicle Caucus, drone regulation had been left almost entirely to the executive branch, largely the Department of Defense and the CIA.

Recognizing that drones were not only increasingly occupying domestic and foreign airspace but were also advancing on the ground and in global waterways, the House leadership last year broadened the name of its group from the UAV Caucus to the House Unmanned Systems Caucus.

Drones are proliferating with virtually no governmental oversight.

Yet the mission of the bipartisan drone caucus, which includes liberal and conservative representatives, is not to regulate drone operations but to promote them.

Financial interests — campaign contributions from drone manufacturers and the income flowing into districts from drone bases and production plants, not concerns about the lack of congressional oversight — spurred the creation of the drone caucus.

Over the past three years, the concerns of the drone caucus have mirrored the concerns of the drone industry about access to domestic airspace, export controls and the modestly declining military budget.

The U.S. public has other concerns, joining others around the world already alarmed about killer strikes and surveillance by drones.

Frustrated by government secrecy and the lack of accountability, several prominent nongovernmental organizations have joined forces to sponsor the "Drone Summit: Killing and Spying by Remote Control" in Washington, D.C., on April 28–29.

“We are bringing together drone-strike victims, human rights advocates, robotics technology experts, journalists and military experts,” says Medea Benjamin of the women’s piece group CodePink. Other sponsors includes two legal advocacy organizations, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the London-based Reprieve.

The summit’s objective is to inform the American public about the widespread and rapidly expanding deployment of both killer and surveillance drones. Drones are at the very center of the new U.S. paradigm in foreign policy, say summit organizers. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta describes them as “the only game in town.”

That being the case, the public and policy community need to be closely involved. “Right now it’s a secret game out of democratic control,” says Benjamin. “We have to change that.”

Billed as the first international drone summit (other than those sponsored by the drone industry), the Drone Summit aims to raise awareness and discuss the full range of ethical questions posed by the use of drones.

“The Drone Summit is an important means of penetrating the mystique and political rhetoric surrounding the use of drones,” explains Tara Murray, deputy legal director of Reprieve, a London-based legal advocacy organization that is cosponsoring the summit.

“Concerns surrounding drones transcend political and national boundaries,” stresses Murphy, noting that the summit is encouraging all members of the public and the policy community to attend “regardless of political affiliation or nationality.”

Participants at the drone summit will hear the testimonies of victims of drone strikes in South Asia.

As Murray points out, the U.S. government’s “hit lists” leads to the targeted killing of both U.S and non-U.S. citizens. This practice, she says, “ignores the constitutionally enshrined principle of due process” and will likely concern “anyone with a commitment to the rule of law, civil liberties and checks on executive power.”

The summit organizers dismiss the notion that they are antitechnology Luddites. Echoing the common perspective of the summit organizers, Murray observes, “Drones are ultimately a tool, and their impact depends primarily on human decisions.”

“We are not antitechnology, and all scientific discoveries, if used in right way, have helped humanity a great deal,” says Shahzad Akbar of the Pakistani Foundation for Legal Rights, which represents drone victims. “But the question is,” he says, “can we trust a program which is being run for the last eight years with no information to its process and under no accountability, having killed almost 3,000 people whose identities are not known to their killers?”

The lack of oversight over drone operations and the booming international drone industry has alarming implications for war and peace. Yet, as the summit organizers note, drone proliferation is also rapidly advancing on the home front.

Drones are also being deployed domestically for “border security” and law enforcement. Predator drones are hunting immigrants and drug smugglers on the northern and southern borders. Both the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department are working with the drone industry to get lightweight drones into the arsenals of metropolitan police and county sheriffs.

Congress recently mandated that the Federal Aviation Administration open up domestic airspace to private and commercial drones by 2015 and that it immediately speed up the licensing process to permit the deployment of government (military, homeland security and law enforcement) drones in commercial U.S. airways.

“As drones become an increasingly common form of warfare, and as their presence expands at home, it is time to educate ourselves, the U.S. public and our policymakers about drone proliferation,” says Medea Benjamin, the author of the forthcoming book Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control. 

“As remotely controlled warfare and spying race forward, it is also time to organize to end current abuses and to prevent the potentially widespread misuse both overseas and here at home,” she warns.

Among the topics the workshops will discuss include disputed legality of drone warfare, compensation for victims, transparency and accountability for drone operation, domestic drone surveillance, and development of autonomous drones.

Speakers will include leading figures from such organizations as Center for Constitutional Rights, Amnesty International-USA, ACLU, Electronic Privacy Information Center, Electronic Frontier Foundation and the International Committee for Robot Arms Control.

The summit will kick off at 9 a.m. on April 29 and continue all day until 9 p.m. Those interested in attending the summit, which will be held at 900 Massachusetts Avenue NW in Washington, D.C., can register online. The following day the summit will host a strategy session at 100 Maryland Avenue NE to network, discuss and plan advocacy efforts focused on various aspects of drones, including surveillance and targeted killings.

Organizations endorsing the summit include the Center for International Policy, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Global Exchange, Peace Action, United for Peace and Justice, Veterans for Peace, Voices for Creative Nonviolence, the Washington Peace Center and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

The fundamental issue that concerns summit organizers is the near-total lack of transparency and accountability in drone proliferation, at home and abroad.

With respect to killer drones, Leili Kashani, advocacy program manager for the Center for Constitutional Rights, explains: “The executive branch of the U.S. government is claiming the authority to target and kill any individual anywhere in the world, including American citizens, without any judicial process or oversight, and without any transparency or accountability. It is subverting the Constitution and international law in assuming the role of judge, jury and executioner.”

Participation in the summit, says Murray, will be an important step in reining in uncontrolled drone proliferation. The lack of congressional oversight means that the drones operations are vulnerable to abuse,” she warns, “and civil society institutions should be evermore vigilant in monitoring the use and impact of drones.

To register for the summit, go to http://bit.ly/HKhyGy. 

Tom Barry directs the TransBorder Project at the Center for International Policy. He is the author of Border Wars (MIT Press, 2011) and blogs at http://borderlinesblog.blogspot.com.
 
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