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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.

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.”

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