EDITORIAL: Dodging drones

Airborne technology threatens civil liberties

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The emotions raised by the Boston Marathon bombing are clouding the judgment of policymakers, tempting them to expand domestic surveillance to thwart future attacks. Constitutional rights once surrendered are likely to be impossible to regain.

The mayhem following Boston’s Marathon massacre left four dead and 260 injured, prompting Police Commissioner Edward Davis last week to endorse the use of unmanned spy aircraft above next year’s marathon. “Drones are a great idea,” he told the Boston Herald. Actually, they’re not. A fleet of unblinking eyes high overhead might scan the marathon’s 26.2-mile route looking for stray backpacks or pressure cookers, but that’s yesterday’s threat. Airborne machines won’t stop the next determined jihadist who strikes at a different venue with a new tactic. Pressure cookers may give way to modified blenders or jury-rigged toaster ovens.

Surveillance cameras don’t prevent crime. There was no lack of video footage of the marathon, and the images were useful in quickly identifying the suspects after the fact. Much of the useful footage came from men and women filming the finish line or from cameras installed to watch over nearby shops and stores. Government drones would not have thwarted the attack.

Ground-based closed-circuit television cameras blanket the city of London, which boosted the number of watching lenses to 4.2 million in preparation for last year’s summer Olympics. Despite having the world’s largest “ring of steel” surveillance network at its disposal, London Metropolitan Police recorded 149,654 violent crimes over the past 12 months. That’s more than twice the per-capita number of killings and assaults reported in Boston, which has far fewer cameras.

Even a civil libertarian such as Sen. Rand Paul countenances the use of armed drones on U.S. soil in “extraordinary, lethal situations, where there is an ongoing, imminent threat.” Under those guidelines, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, accused of spraying bullets and tossing bombs along neighborhood streets, could easily have been marked for termination with extreme prejudice.

Mr. Paul’s lengthy Senate filibuster extracted a grudging White House statement that the president does not have the authority “to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on U.S. soil.” It’s easy to argue that the Boston bombers were “engaged in combat,” and under this definition, they could have been in the sights of a guided missile.

The discussion over preventing another Boston Marathon-type bombing highlights how drone technology has outpaced efforts to ensure that they are not used to deprive Americans of their civil liberties, or even their lives. To catch up, the Federal Aviation Administration should finish writing rules for drone use that safeguard privacy, as directed by Congress in 2012. Congress should do its part with legislation introduced by Mr. Paul and others that requires court-approved warrants before the drones can take to the skies. Americans should consider whether they’re ready to accept the idea of armed drones lurking in the clouds above them — and decide before the “fire” button is pushed for the first time.

The Washington Times

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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