New Jersey Newsroom / Past Work

Drones in American Airspace. What’s the risk?

Armed Predator drone firing Hellfire missile

Armed Predator drone firing Hellfire missile (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

BY CHRISTOPHER ESSNER

As the United States continues to plan its efforts for a military pullout in Afghanistan, one branch of the U.S. Armed forces continues to grow at a rapid pace. Drones, unmanned aircraft used to observe and eliminate threats overseas, have become incremental to the U.S. and its fight against terrorism.

The policy came under fire when NBC News uncovered a confidential justice department memo. The memo states that the U.S. can order the killing of American citizens if they are believed to be working with Al Qaeda as a “senior operational leader” or “an associated force.” The most notable operatives who fell under this category were Anwar al-Alwaki and Samir Khan. Both were US citizens targeted and killed by drone strikes without any hearings or charges.

According to the memo, “The condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Unman...

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Unmanned aerial vehicle of the CBP Air and Marine Unmanned Aircraft System. (Predator unarmed) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The American public raised concerns because of the memo’s broad definition of imminent threat.

“It argues that the government has the right to carry out the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen. … It recognizes some limits on the authority it sets out, but the limits are elastic and vaguely defined, and it’s easy to see how they could be manipulated,” said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the ACLU, in an interview with NBC.

In response to the report, the White House announced they would allow Congress access to the Office of Legal Council’s position on the use of lethal force against terrorists and the legal advice that supports it.

Concern among some U.S. residents remain despite the new-found transparency for drone policy by the U.S. government.

Bryan Tamalone, a native of Manalapan, N.J.,  still believes the policy allows for a high risk of abuse of power in the future.

“There have been enough crooked people in power throughout history, let alone the last fifty years, who would happily give up other citizens liberties to ensure domestic security and tranquility,” he said.

Drones may be coming to American airspace sooner than people like. Since May of last year, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been implementing plans to allow both civilian and government drones in US airspace by the year 2015. FAA Reauthorization Bill, passed by Congress, allows “a government public safety agency to operate unmanned aircraft weighing 4.4 pounds or less” with some restrictions. The question often asked… How does this effect personal privacy?

“I think even the possibility of their use on home soil jeopardizes our fourth amendment rights,” Tamalone said.

John McPherson, studying for his US Coast Guard Engine Officer License at the SUNY Maritime College, feels differently about drone use on American soil. He believes the drones in American airspace and cameras on city streets essentially amount to the same thing.

“They are here to protect us and as long as they aren’t invading people’s privacy I don’t see them as a problem,” he said.

For others the greatest risk of invasion of privacy or drone attack on American soil does not fall with our government, but from those who they are meant to fight. In 2009, insurgents successfully hacked video feed from a US drone using only $26 worth of software equipment. US officials also believe Iran is responsible for cyber-attacks against major Persian Gulf gas and oil companies. Outgoing Defense Secretary believes the US need to step up its cyber security.

“We know of specific instances where intruders have successfully gained access to these control systems,” Panetta said. “We also know that they are seeking to create advanced tools to attack these systems and cause panic and destruction, and even the loss of life.”

Drones are becoming ever more engrained in international and domestic agencies, and will continue to remain a controversial subject as the American public weighs the pros and cons of the nation’s policy.

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