3. Here a Drone, There a Drone, Everywhere a Drone
"Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif) has said that the drones are so popular that a Predator could be elected president.'' 
-- William Booth, The Washington Post
Drones came of age in the US war on terror, namely during the war in Iraq. Ironically, that war was itself sold to the American public and the international community in part based on the alleged threat posed by drones -- in the wrong hands.
In a February 5, 2003 presentation before the United Nations Security Council, then-US Secretary of State Colin Powell sought to sell the coming war to a skeptical world by pointing to Iraq's alleged possession of weaponized drones that could be used to attack the West with chemical or biological agents. The claim was debunked almost the moment it was made -- the drones were for reconnaissance purposes only -- but the story served its purpose: only a lunatic wouldn't fear a madman armed with flying death robots, corporate media outlets declared.  The rest is blood-soaked history.
The war in Iraq provided the US military a platform for perfecting its own deadly drones. In 2003 and 2004, the Army flew UAVs about 1,500 hours a month, according to USA Today; by mid-2006, that number had risen to about 9,000 hours a month.  In the eyes of many -- outside the studios of Fox and CNN, that is -- the US, not Iraq, had become the madman armed with flying death robots.
From the hunter-killer Predators and Reapers to the surveillance Global Hawks to the smaller, cheaper Ravens, the Air Force couldn't get its hands on enough UAVsfor the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. "The demand far exceeds all of the Defense Department's ability to provide these assets," Air Force Lt. Col. Larry Gurgainous told an AP reporter in 2008. 
In Afghanistan, by 2010 the Air Force was flying at least twenty Predator drones over stretches of hostile Afghan territory each day, providing a daily dose of some five hundred hours of video.  Most drones were used for surveillance purposes. "For example, every day we're analyzing imagery that includes the need to distinguish between normal agriculture and poppy production," one military officer told the Christian Science Monitor. 
But they were also used to target low-level Taliban fighters in remote areas and to support US troops in fire fights. According to Air Force figures, there were seventy-four drone strikes in 2007,183 in 2008 and 219 in 2009.
In Iraq, spy drones were used for everything from protecting oil fields to tracking supposed insurgents to distinguishing between "plastics production ...and homemade explosives production,"  Lethal drones were sent to target government buildings in Baghdad and to kill militants firing upon US positions.  The US military in Iraq came to rely on drones even more as it began to draw down its troop presence in 2008. The Bush Administration launched a record number of lethal strikes at around the same time President Bush's "surge" was about to end and both US and Iraqi politicians were trying to figure out the best way to get American troops out of the country without losing face.
Drones also proved useful after the ostensible US "withdrawal" from Iraq in December 2011. Mandated by the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated by the Bush administration, the withdrawal resulted in the vast majority of combat troops being removed from the country but left behind more than 11,000 State Department employees -- and the world's largest embassy in Baghdad -- as well as a private, 5,000-strong mercenary force to protect them. And a fleet of UAVs.
As the New York Times reported and President Obama acknowledged in January 2012, US surveillance drones continued to fly through Iraq's nominally sovereign airspace well after the last Americans were supposed to have left the country.  The excuse: protecting all the State Department staff the US was leaving behind to meddle in the country's affairs. And the kicker: the UAVs were being operated not by the military, but the State Department itself, that arm of the US government that once upon a time was associated with diplomacy, not drones.
At the time its drone program was revealed, the State Department insisted its fleet of UAVs were solely for surveillance purposes and that none of them were armed or even capable of being weaponized. For their part, though, Iraqis were skeptical.
"We hear from time to time that drone aircraft have killed half a village in Pakistan and Afghanistan under the pretext of pursuing terrorists," Iraqi businessman Hisham Mohammed Salah told the Times. "Our fear is that will happen in Iraq under a different pretext."
While the Air Force was busy hunting and killing in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the US was involved in larger wars involving ground troops, other agencies -- even nonmilitary ones -- took the killer drones to places around the world like Pakistan, Yemen, the Philippines and Somalia where the United States was not officially at war. In just a decade, the US Air Force, the CIA, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and mercenary groups like Blackwater (currently giving itself the professorial name Academi) had built up a global network of bases to pilot, test, maintain, arm, and launch drones. Many parts of this program are veiled in secrecy, especially those run by the CIA and ISOC, so its full extent is hard to assess.
As of October 2011, the US government was operating no less than sixty drone bases at home and around the world, according to journalist Nick Turse, from remote regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan to Ethiopia, Djibouti, Uzbekistan, Qatar, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates.  A Washington Post expose of Obama's global apparatus for drone killing said the network included "dozens of secret facilities, including two operational hubs on the East Coast, virtual Air Force cockpits in the Southwest, and clandestine bases in at least six countries on two continents." 
The most extensive -- and lethal -- drone program outside a war zone is run by the CIA. Publicly, the CIA does not even acknowledge this program's existence. When the ACLU tried to get information about the CIA's drone killings, the agency argued -- and the court agreed -- that even the "fact of the existence or non-existence" of such a program was classified. But the CIA's drone assassination squad has become, next to Israel's nuclear weapons arsenal, perhaps the world's worst -kept classified secret.
Indeed, in October 2010, while delivering an on-therecord address before an auditorium full of American soldiers stationed in Italy, Defense Secretary and former head of the CIA Leon Panetta even cracked a joke about the program.
"[O]bviously I have a helluva lot more weapons available to me in this job than I had at the CIA," Panetta told the troops, according to the Associated Press.  "Although the Predators aren't that bad."
Later that same day, Panetta noted US troops had helped affect regime change in Libya using the Global Hawk surveillance drone and the Predator -- a hunter/ killer aircraft that, he said, "I was very familiar with in my last job."
Panetta was not reprimanded for disclosing top-secret classified information and joking about what many legal experts consider war crimes. In the warped imperial culture of Washington, DC, when a low-level soldier like Bradley Manning leaks classified information with the express intent of revealing to the world the existence of war crimes, he faces life in prison. Panetta's joking disclosure, like President Obama's own quip about murdering the Jonas Brothers band with Predator drones, draws a hearty laugh from the establishment, not an indictment.
Before September 11, the CIA, stung by past assassination scandals, only used drones for surveillance. The week before the 9/11 attack, CIA Director George Tenet was quoted by counterterrorism advisors as saying that it would be a "terrible mistake" for the CIA to "fire a weapon like this."  Post-9/11, everything changed. The agency asked for, and received from President Bush, a secret memorandum giving it the right to target Al Qaeda virtually anywhere in the world. With the green light to kill, the CIA began putting its drones to work.
Begun under Bush and expanded under Obama, the CIA's program is classified as covert and the agency refuses to disclose where it operates, who is in charge, how targets are selected and approved, or how many people have been killed. It insists that releasing any information would aid the enemy. When former UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston tried to get basic questions answered -- both from the Bush and Obama administrations -- "they blew me off," he said. 
The CIA's main focus has been in Pakistan, where its missile strikes target suspected Al Qaeda operatives, as well as low-ranking militants believed to be involved in cross-border attacks on US troops or facilities in Afghanistan.
According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, between 2004-2011, the CIA conducted over three hundred drone strikes in Pakistan, with a spike of 118 attacks in 2010, killing somewhere between 2,372 and 2,997 people. At the end of 2011 the CIA suspended its missile strikes in an effort to mend badly frayed relations between the US and Pakistani government after US gunships mistakenly killed twenty-four Pakistani soldiers in November 2011. When the strikes resumed in mid-January 2012, against the wishes of the Pakistani government and people, Pakistani intelligence officials said the drone attacks were on the verge of pushing strained ties between the two nations to the point of collapse.
The CIA's partner, the military's Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) is even more cloaked in secrecy and less subject to accountability than the intelligence agency.
Founded in 1980, JSCOC specializes in secret, small-scale operations. Since 9/11 its primary mission has been to identify and destroy perceived terrorists and terror cells worldwide. It is credited as the group that oversaw the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. In addition to dispatching clandestine troops, it has a drone hit team that it operates with the help of contracted mercenaries. It has carried out deadly strikes in Yemen and Somalia, but like the CIA, it refuses to disclose any aspect of its counterterrorism operations.
JSOC reports directly to the president and, as National Journal reporter Marc Ambinder put it, "operates worldwide based on the legal (or extra-legal) premises of classified presidential directive."  John Nagl, a former counterinsurgency adviser to Gen. Petraeus, described JSOC's kill/capture campaign as "an almost industrial-scale counterterrorism killing machine." 
JSOC targets come from a secret list called JPEL (Joint Prioritized Effects List). According to Matthew Hoh, a former Marine and Foreign Service officer who resigned in 2009 because he felt US tactics were only fueling the insurgency, the list includes bomb makers, commanders, financiers, people who coordinate the weapons transport and even PR people. 
Another key partner in drone warfare are private contractors. "From a secret division at its North Carolina headquarters, the company formerly known as Blackwater has assumed a role in Washington's most important counterterrorism program: the use of remotely piloted drones to kill Al Qaeda's leaders," the New York Times reported in August 2009.  "The division's operations are carried out at hidden bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the company's contractors assemble and load Hellfire missiles and 500-pound laser-guided bombs on remotely piloted Predator aircraft, work previously performed by employees of the [CIA]."
A few months after the Times' story, The Nation's Jeremy Scahill revealed that the relationship between Blackwater and the US government's covert drone assassination program ran even deeper. He reported that the company was intimately involved in the drone program run not just by the CIA, but by the military's ultra-secretive JSOC.
"It's Blackwater running the program for both CIA and JSOC," Scahill quoted a source within US military intelligence as saying. According to the source, while many reported drone strikes in Pakistan are credited to the CIA, it is the parallel Blackwater-JSOC program that is responsible for the bulk of civilian casualties.
When civilians are killed, Scahill's source said, "people go, 'Oh, it's the CIA doing crazy shit again unchecked.' Well, at least 50 percent of the time, that's JSOC [hitting] somebody they've identified through HUMINT [human intelligence] or they've culled the intelligence themselves or it's been shared with them and they take that person out and that's how it works."
While the CIA is not exactly renowned for its respect for the lives of foreigners, the Blackwater-JSOC drone program is supposedly even more cavalier about killing civilians, as it is even less subject to congressional oversight.
"Targeted killings are not the most popular thing in town right now and the CIA knows that," the source said, according to Scahill. "Contractors and especially JSOC personnel working under a classified mandate are not [overseen by Congress], so they just don't care. If there's one person they're going after and there's thirty-four people in the building, thirty- five people are going to die. That's the mentality."
In Yemen, both the CIA and JSOC are engaged in a covert bombing campaign aimed at taking out suspected members of AI Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Both have their own flying hit teams, with separate but overlapping targets. Unlike in Pakistan, where the CIA has presidential authorization to launch strikes at will, each strike in Yemen requires White House approval and intended targets are drawn from an approved list of militants deemed by US intelligence officials to be involved in planning attacks against the West. 
In November 2002 the CIA conducted its first drone strike in Yemen, killing AI Qaeda leader Abu Ali Al-Harithi, a suspect in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, and five others. Under the Obama administration, there have been about fifteen strikes in Yemen as of January 2012, although it is not clear how many were carried out by drones or by conventional aircraft and cruise missiles.
A drone strike in May 2010 mistakenly killed a key mediator between the Yemeni government and AI Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Jaber al-Shabwani, the deputy governor of Maarib. He was killed while conferring with an Al Qaeda leader in an attempt to negotiate a settlement with the government. Also killed in the attack were three of his bodyguards and two operatives with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. 
The Yemeni government apologized for Shabwani's death but the killing prompted members of his tribe to strike at government facilities, including a military camp, an oil pipeline, and powerlines.  On January 30, 2012, a drone strike in southern Yemen killed at least twelve alleged Al Qaeda militants, including four local leaders.
The most high-profile attack in Yemen was in September 2011, when the CIA used a Predator drone to assassinate two US citizens, Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, alleged propagandists for a Yemeni terrorist organization inspired by Al Qaeda.  The killings were the first reported instances of the US government executing its own citizens without charging them with a crime or affording them a trial by a jury of their peers. Less than a month later, Awlaki's sixteen-year-old son, Abdulrahman, was also killed in a drone strike. 
Ironically, the CIA is forbidden under US law from spying on Americans -- that's left to the FBI. It seems that the agency can, however, murder Americans overseas at the behest of the president without so much as a whimper of "impeachment."
According to a State Department cable released by the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks, the bombings in Yemen were conducted with the approval of the long-time dictator of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who in January 2010 reassured US officials that he would "continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours."  That promise is credited as one of the reasons the Yemeni people rose up against Saleh's repressive regime in 2011, despite the specter of frequently violent and bloody crackdowns, and forced him to leave the country in January 2012.
The drone war in Yemen is implicating another very dicey part of the world, Saudi Arabia. In the summer of 2011, it was reported that the deadly drones flying over Yemen's skies were coming from bases in the Arabian Peninsula,  which a senior US military official said means Saudi Arabia.  You might recall that none other than former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said the presence of US forces in Saudi Arabia had proven to be a "huge recruiting device for AI Qaeda" and in fact one of the principle grievances of Osama bin Laden. 
Elsewhere in the Gulf, the US has reportedly been flying UAVs from Kuwait and Oman, and running a support facility for its drone wars from an air base in Qatar.  According to Global Security, the Global Hawk has operated from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) since the early days of the invasion of Iraq, using the Al Dhafra Air Base outside the capital Abu Dhabi  The move came despite the fact that Islamic groups in the UAE are critical of the government's close ties to the United States.
Across the Arabian Sea in Somalia, the Washington Post reported in September 2011 that the Obama administration has been flying drones over this war-torn, famine-ravished nation from a base in the tiny northeast African nation of Djibouti as part of its efforts to fight the Islamic insurgent group Al Shabab.  The US military has had a presence in Djibouti since 2001 as a base for US operations in the Horn of Africa.
In October 2011, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney also confirmed that the US was flying drones out of a "facility in Ethiopia as part of our partnership with the government of Ethiopia to promote stability in the Horn of Africa."  According to Carney, the drones are not weaponized, but are "unarmed reconnaissance aircraft" intended to be used as part of a "broad, sustained and integrated campaign to counter terrorism."
Not to worry, though: while armed drones were reportedly not yet based in Ethiopia, the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal reported in the fall of 2011 that the US was operating unmanned aircraft at a base in the island nation of Seychelles, an archipelago located off the coast of East Africa, and was considering weaponizing them. 
US and Seychelles officials originally said that the primary mission of the drones was to track pirates in regional waters. But classified US diplomatic cables showed that the plan was also to conduct counterterrorism missions over Somalia, about eight hundred miles to the northwest. 
The cables, obtained by WikiLeaks, revealed that US officials asked leaders in the Seychelles to keep the counterterrorism missions secret, something the president of the Seychelles was more than happy to do. A US military spokesman refused, on security grounds, to tell the Washington Post if the Reapers in the Seychelles have ever been armed but noted that they "can be configured for both surveillance and strike." 
According to the BBC in June 2011, the US expanded its reach even further into Africa by sending four drones to Uganda and Burundi. 
This constellation of bases for drones in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula was designed to create overlapping circles of surveillance in a region where the CIA thought AI Qaeda offshoots could continue to emerge.
Drones were also used in Libya, with 145 drone strikes launched in just the first six months of the 2011 effort to overthrow the regime of Muammar Qaddafi -- a military operation which the Obama administration denied was even a real war. 
With most American troops leaving Iraq at the end of 2011, the US government made a deal with Turkey to fly Predator drones from the Turkish-US joint air base at Incirlik as part of a joint counterterrorism operation in northern Iraq.  Since 1984, the Turkish government has been fighting a separatist campaign by rebels of the outlawed Kurdistan Worker's Party, or PKK, which has militants based in northern Iraq. The drone deal with Turkey puts the United States squarely in the middle of not only the Turkey- Kurd conflict, but also a conflict between Turkey and Iraq.
But the overwhelming US dominance in the use of drones is coming to an end. By 2011, American officials were already publicly fretting that the technology they have spent decades and billions of dollars developing is beginning to fall into the hands of other nations, friends and foes alike.
"From Desert Storm to the present, the US and its allies have had relatively exclusive access to sophisticated precision-strike technologies," Deputy Secretary of Defense William J. Lynn, III remarked at a June 2011 conference in Washington on the future of war.  Over the next decade or two, he said, "that technology will be increasingly possessed by other nations ... thereby creating challenges for our ability to project power to distant parts of the globe."
Indeed, Philip Alston, former UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, noted that an arms race spurred by the widespread use of unmanned aerial vehicles by the US government to assassinate its perceived enemies is already well under way. Over fifty countries have the technology and many of them -- including Israel, Russia, Turkey, China, India, Iran, the United Kingdom, and France -- either have or are seeking weaponized drones.
Some of these countries do not just possess the technology; they are already using it.
During its 2008-2009 invasion of the Gaza Strip known as "Operation Cast Lead," the Israeli Defense Force repeatedly deployed unmanned aircraft to fire on suspected members of Hamas, the elected Palestinian government.
According to a leaked US State Department cable reported on by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, in one incident an Israeli drone "shot at two Hamas fighters in front of the mosque and sixteen unintended casualties resulted inside the mosque due to an open door through which shrapnel entered during a time of prayer."  While the technology may be precise, fallible human beings are still the ones picking the targets and pulling the trigger.
Israel ostensibly ended its military occupation of the Gaza Strip in 2005. But thanks to modern drone technology, it does not need boots on the ground to dominate -- and extinguish -- Palestinian life.
"For us, drones mean death," said Hamdi Shaqqura of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in an interview with the Washington Post.  According to his group, Israeli drones killed at least 825 people between 2006 and 2011, the majority civilians. And that has affected almost every aspect of Palestinian life. According to one study, the majority of children living in Gaza suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of the constant buzzing and bombing of Israeli death machines. Palestinians even have to take drones into account when trying to do something as benign and banal as fixing a broken-down car -- you really don't want a group of people lingering around for long when there's a plane armed with missiles hovering overhead. "When you hear drones," Shaqqura explained, "you hear death."
"It's continuous, watching us, especially at night," said Nabil al-Amassi, a Gaza mechanic and father of eight. "You can't sleep. You can't watch television. It frightens the kids. When they hear it, they say, 'It is going to hit us.'''
Along with Israel and the United States, Britain is the only other country to have employed weaponized drones in war as of 2011. In the 1980s, the UK developed the Phoenix, a drone that was briefly used in the Kosovo War and then in Iraq in 2003. So many were lost or crashed that British troops nicknamed the aircraft the "Bugger Off," as the planes rarely returned from a sortie.  For Afghanistan, the UK bought US-made Reapers and rented Israeli Hermes drones. This was part of a stopgap measure while developing their own Watchkeeper drone in a joint venture by Israeli and UK private companies that, after many delays, was supposed to be operational by 2012. 
Like their US and Israeli counterparts, the British government sees unmanned aircraft as the way of the future, with the Guardian reporting that UK officials say "almost one third of the [Royal Air Force] could be made up of remotely controlled aircraft within 20 years." 
In July 2011, British drone operators made a mistake that underscores the continued fallibility of modern weapons, killing four civilians in Afghanistan with missiles fired from Reaper drones that they were piloting out of a US air base in Nevada. (The Royal Air Force has been piloting Reapers from Creech Air Force base in Nevada since late 2007.) Lest anyone believe the incident exposed flaws with the increased reliance on the almighty drone, UK military officials were quick to explain the deaths were the result of intelligence failures on the ground rather than problems with the aircraft. 
That fallible human element does not harm just those on the receiving end of the West's liberating Hellfire missiles. When Iraqis were actually able to see the un encrypted video feeds that the unmanned vehicles were broadcasting back to US troops, it gave them the chance to escape and evade assassination.  In 2002, Iraqis were also able to use a Soviet-era MIG-25 to shoot down a US drone. In 2006, the Syrian air force reportedly shot down an Israeli spy drone flying on the Lebanese side of the border with Syria.  And in a little-reported incident in February 2011, as Yemeni police were transporting a Predator drone that had crashed in southern Yemen, Al Qaeda gunmen attacked, running off with the downed aircraft.
But the perceived enemies of the US government are doing more than just hijacking and shooting down drones: they are using their own.
During its 2006 war on Lebanon, the Israeli Defense Force claimed to have shot down several surveillance drones that Hezbollah had received from Iran. In Iraq, US troops shot down a similar Iranian drone in March 2009. 
Just as US drone technology is falling into the hands of less-than-friendly regimes, the technology -- like the Hummer and other military equipment before it -- is finding its way back to the homeland. In a September 27, 2011 presentation at the headquarters of the US Air Force on the future of "remotely piloted aircraft," the branch's chief scientist Mark T. Maybury pointed to "homeland security" as a key future use of drones, complete with maps of the United States intended to highlight the need for "Integrating [drones] in National Airspace." 
The future is here.
In 2005 Congress authorized Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to buy unarmed Predators. By the end of 2011, CBP was flying eight Predator drones along the southwestern border with Mexico and along the northern Canadian border to search for illegal immigrants and smugglers. By 2016, CBP hopes to have two dozen drones in its possession, "giving the agency the ability to deploy a drone anywhere over the continental United States within three hours," according to the Washington Post.  And beyond, it seems, as the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has deployed several drones in neighboring Mexico to spy on that country's powerful drug cartels. 
In June 2011, the Post reported that CBP's drone fleet had "reached a milestone ... having flown 10,000 hours." But they had little to show for it. The paper flatly noted that the 4,835 undocumented immigrants and 238 drug smugglers that the Department of Homeland Security claimed to have apprehended thanks to UAVs were "not very impressive" numbers. What is impressive is the cost: $7,054 for each undocumented immigrant or smuggler who was caught.
"Congress and the taxpayers ought to demand some kind of real cost -benefit analysis of drones," said Tom Barry of the Center for International Policy, a Washington think tank. "My sense is that they would conclude these aircraft aren't worth the money."
But politicians in Washington don't seem too concerned. CBP's Michael Kostelnik told the Post he has never been pressed by a lawmaker to justify his agency's use of drones. "Instead the question is: Why can't we have more of them in my district?"
Indeed, many lawmakers are cheerleaders for the drone industry, setting up their own Congressional Drone Caucus (formally known as the Unmanned Systems Caucus) specifically to lobby for more and better drones, to lift export restrictions, and to relax regulations by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that limit the use of drones domestically. 
The FAA is responsible for the safety of the nation's airspace, and that's why any entity wishing to operate a UAV domestically must obtain FAA permission. The agency had been proceeding very cautiously out of concern that many of the remotely piloted aircraft don't have adequate "detect sense and avoid" technology to prevent midair collisions. By 2012 it had only permitted a small number of domestic law enforcement agencies to use drones, with strict conditions attached.
But the FAA came under increasing pressure from Congress, industry, and law enforcement agencies to open the skies to UAVs. On February 14, 2012, President Obama gave a Valentine's Day present to the drone manufacturers. He signed a $63.4 billion Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill that requires the FAA to come up with a comprehensive integration plan within nine months and to fully integrate drones into US airspace by September 15, 2015. The bill also requires expedited access for public users, like law enforcement, firefighters and emergency responders. Within ninety days, it must allow them to fly drones under 4.4 pounds, as long as they are kept under an altitude of 400 feet and meet other requirements.
The US drone lobby group that helped draft the bill, the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), was delighted; commercial airlines and pilots were not. They worry that the quick push to integrate drones will not only take away jobs, but lead to accidents. "Until unmanned aircraft can show they won't run into other planes or the ground, they shouldn't be allowed to fly with other traffic," said Lee Moak, president of the Air Line Pilots Association. 
Even before the new rules had gone into effect, the CBP had made some very unconventional -- and some would say illegal -- uses of its drones to assist local, state and federal law enforcement. As the Los Angeles Times reported in December 2011, CBP's Kostelnik acknowledged that far beyond just providing surveillance at the border, Predators are flown "in many areas around the country, not only for federal operators, but also for state and local law enforcement and emergency responders in times of crisis." 
It was deemed a crisis, I suppose, when drones were called in to Nelson County, North Dakota to help Sheriff Kelly Janke look for six missing cows on the Brossart family farm in the early evening of June 23, 2011. The heroic drones helped find and apprehend the cattle rustlers -- and rescue the six cows.
Police forces, full of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, are chomping at the bit to get the latest in 21st century military equipment. And while they anxiously await FAA approval, some departments have applied for -- and received -- permission to test out various kinds of drones.
The Miami-Dade Police Department in Florida purchased a 20-pound drone.  "It gives us a good opportunity to have an eye up there," Miami-Dade Police Director James Loftus told reporters. "Not a surveilling eye, not a spying eye. Let's make the distinction. A surveilling eye to help us to do the things we need to do, honestly, to keep people safe."
In November 2011, the Miami police department also obtained approval from the FAAto fly two $50,000-a-piece surveillance drones said to resemble flying garbage cans, albeit limited to heights of just three hundred feet.  "No other law enforcement agency in the country is using this," bragged Sergeant Andrew Cohen. "We're forging new ground." 
The Mesa County, Colorado, Sheriff's Office is testing a remotely operated miniature helicopter designed to carry wireless video, still cameras, and light thermal imaging equipment. The sheriff's office is using the testing process to gather information that could eventually lead to the helicopter being approved by the FAA for daily use by law enforcement for search and rescue operations, for providing real time updates to tactical teams during crisis, or for simply sending the helicopter out to photograph a crime scene.
In October 2011, a police department just outside of Houston, Texas, dropped $300,000 in federal homeland security grant money on an unmanned, fifty-pound helicopter decked out with a powerful zoom camera and infra-red equipment. While unarmed -- for now -- Michael Buscher, CEO of manufacturer Vanguard Defense Industries, told reporters the drone is designed to be weaponized and could in the future be outfitted with "what we call less lethal systems." Those include Tasers that can electrocute suspects on the ground and bean-bag-firing guns called stun batons. 
"You have a stun baton where you can actually engage somebody at altitude with the aircraft," Buscher explained. "A stun baton would essentially disable a suspect." But not to worry, Sheriff Tommy Gage assured reporters. "We're not going to use it to be invading somebody's privacy. It'll be used for situations we have with criminals," he said. Situations, like hunting fleeing suspects. Or helping SWAT teams scope out an area during a standoff. Or during other criminal investigations, like those involving potential drug shipments.
"No matter what we do in law enforcement, somebody's going to question it, but we're going to do the right thing, and I can assure you of that," Gage said at a press conference.
Feeling reassured? The ACLU isn't. The civil rights watchdog is particularly concerned that drones are moving us closer to a "surveillance society" in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded, and scrutinized by the authorities. In a December 2011 report on aerial surveillance, the ACLU predicted that "all the pieces appear to be lining up for the eventual introduction of routine aerial surveillance in American life -- a development that would profoundly change the character of public life in the United States." This is especially worrisome since "our privacy laws are not strong enough to ensure that the new technology will be used responsibly and consistently with democratic values."  The report concluded that based on current trends -- technology development, law enforcement interest, political and industry pressure, and the lack of legal safeguards -- "it is clear that drones pose a looming threat to Americans' privacy." 
"The potential for abuse is vast," warns Constitutional lawyer and writer Glenn Greenwald. "The escalation in surveillance they ensure is substantial, and the effect they have on the culture of personal privacy -- having the state employ hovering, high-tech, stealth video cameras that invade homes and other private spaces -- is simply creepy." 
Equally creepy is the possibility that drone technology is not just coming back to the US by way of local law enforcement agencies desperate for new, Department of Homeland Security-funded gadgets. Soon, the technology could be brought back to the homeland whether US policymakers like it or not.
As Ralph Nader observed in a column published in the fall of 2011, drone technology is "becoming so dominant and so beyond any restraining framework of law or ethics that its use by the US government around the world may invite a horrific blowback."  Two days after the piece was published, a twenty-six-year-old man from Massachusetts, Rezwan Ferdaus, was arrested and accused of plotting to attack the Pentagon and US Capitol with small drone aircraft filled with explosives. The plan he delivered to undercover agents involved using three remote-controlled planes, similar to military drones, guided by GPS equipment.
Ferdaus, a Northeastern University graduate with a degree in physics, had already used his skills to convert eight cell phones into detonators, supplying them to undercover agents who he thought were affiliated with AI Qaeda. FBI agents seemed to have egged him on to go further, providing him with assault rifles, grenades, 25 pounds of C-4 plastic explosives and even an F-86 remote-controlled aircraft.
According to the criminal complaint filed in court, the planes were large enough to carry "a variety of payloads (including a lethal payload of explosives), could use a wide range of take-off and landing environments, and could fly different flight patterns than commercial airlines, thus reducing detection." The Capitol's dome would be "blown to smithereens," Ferdaus was quoted in the complaint as saying.
If he had succeeded in creating and launching a suicide-bombing drone, Ferdaus would arguably only have beaten the US government at its own game. Less than a month before news of the alleged plot was made public, the US Army announced it was awarding military contractor AeroVironment a $4.9 million contract to supply it with a small, backpack-size drone capable of crash-diving into a target kamikaze-style. 
John Villasenor, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles, told the New York Times such a drone in the hands of terrorists could pose a challenge that may prove extremely difficult to thwart. "If they are skimming over rooftops and trees," he said, "they will be almost impossible to shoot down."
Of course, for years so-called terror experts have warned of extremists setting off suitcase bombs in American cities. Despite the constant fear mongering from the political establishment, the truth is that people in the Middle East have more to fear from the US government's weapons of war than the American public does from deadly tools in the hands of terrorists.
Still, while Ferdaus's plot was foiled and previous threats may have been overblown, the point was driven home: Watch out, America -- what goes around, comes around.