Editor’s note: Some drones are bigger than a jet, weaponized and used in strategic military operations. Others are smaller than a basketball, sent airborne for basic surveillance or weekend recreation.
The label “unmanned aerial vehicles,” or UAVs, is almost a catch-all term covering a wide range of devices that vary greatly in their capabilities and purposes. Yet the use of drones generally sparks intense debate, questions about security versus privacy and even fear.
In the WTOP series “Spy in the Sky,” WTOP examines the types of drones used by the U.S. military and fears about targeted killings, both at home and abroad.
WASHINGTON – Americans’ awareness about drones has increased dramatically this year, as the political debate on Capitol Hill and in statehouses attempts to shape how the technology can be used in the future.
In Virginia, a two-year moratorium on the use of drones by police and government agencies is now in the hands of Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell.
In Maryland, a bill restricting drone use has been introduced this year. It prohibits law enforcement agencies from using drones to gather evidence or other information without a warrant. The bill does make exceptions for a high-risk terrorist threat and a response to an emergency.
And in Washington, a nearly 13-hour filibuster on the Senate floor elevated a legal question about drones to a trending topic in social media.
“In the last couple years we’ve really seen drones move from a sort of far away, abstract, science-fiction-y idea to something that’s very real,” says Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union.
The debate about the use of drones, whether it involves weaponized units abroad or tiny surveillance devices in America, has created unlikely bedfellows.
In Virginia, for example, organizations including the ACLU, the Tea Party Patriots Federation and agriculture groups supported the moratorium, even as several law enforcement organizations opposed it.
Ultimately, the state’s delay is a way to hit the pause button on drone use so lawmakers can have time to develop procedures to govern their deployment.
“The moratorium has some provisions for cases where there are missing children … officers who are down and other provisions involving search and rescue operations that are under way,” says Delegate Ben Cline, R-Amherst, who introduced the moratorium bill in the Virginia House of Delegates.
At least 31 states are considering laws that would limit drone use, according to U.S. News & World Report. Those concerned about drone deployment would like to see more hearings on the devices, and more transparency.
“One of the concerns here is that it’s not always clear that we have enough privacy laws in place now to protect us from drones,” Stanley says.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., put the spotlight on the hypothetical scenario of weaponized drones in America earlier this month during his filibuster of President Barack Obama’s pick for CIA director, John O. Brennan.
“I will speak until I can no longer speak,” Paul said as he began the stall tactic.
“I will speak as long as it takes until the alarm is sounded from coast to coast that our Constitution is important, that your rights to trial by jury are precious, that no American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime,” he said.
On the same day, Attorney General Eric Holder appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he had a tense exchange with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
“If a U.S. citizen on U.S. citizen soil is not posing immediate threat to life or bodily harm, does the Constitution allow a drone to kill that citizen?” Cruz asked.
Holder ultimately responded with a straightforward “No,” though it took nearly four minutes before he returned the answer Cruz was seeking.
“The kind of oversight that I think the American people should be expecting — when you have a president who’s claiming authority to kill United States citizens far from any battlefield — has not happened,” says Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel in the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office.