Obama Drones Come Home to Roost

Nat Hentoff

President Barack Obama’s cherished pilotless drones—with their corollary civilian corpses—have hardly been mentioned in the 2012 elections. Even the widely available news that Obama regularly focused on a drone “kill list” to decide whom to assassinate overseas (including three Americans so far) faded away in the news mists without any rousing congressional speeches or Sunday sermons.

But now, as Americans become aware that the drones are coming here, there is growing domestic concern (“Talk of Drones Patrolling U.S. Skies Spawns Anxiety,” Associated Press, June 19, 2012).

Some are here already, according to another headline: “Groups Concerned Over Arming of Domestic Drones” (washington.cbslocal.com/2012/05/23). The story added more fodder for anxiety: “The Federal Aviation Administration has allowed several police departments to use drones across the U.S. They are controlled from a remote location and use infrared sensors and high-resolution cameras” as they search for suspicious persons.

I have previously advised that as more drones inhabit our skies, try not to make furtive movements when you look up.

But not all UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) will be armed and tracking us. As the July 19, 2012, Washington Times reported, “they will [also] be available for commercial and personal use beginning in 2015, and critics say the federal government isn’t considering how dangerous they could be in the wrong hands.” According to the Washington Times, at a June congressional hearing, “witnesses, including a University of Texas professor who hijacked a drone last month, told the House Homeland Security subcommittee on oversight . . . that, with the proper equipment and expertise, it’s relatively easy to jam drones’ signals and take control of them.

“The professor is Todd Humphreys, who, along with several of his graduate students, hijacked a surveillance drone to demonstrate holes in their security systems.”

Does that make those of you on the ground uneasy? Professor Humphreys went on to use “a video demonstration to show lawmakers how tech-savvy hijackers could crack a drone’s GPS signal and control it from miles away.”

Has anybody told President Obama or Republican contender Mitt Romney that? Of course, reaction might be tempered by the fact that manufacturing of drones here at home both for surveillance and political reasons has become a profitable business. This also troubles the Texas professor. He’s not alone in his fear of drones in our skies becoming vulnerable to being hijacked in mid-flight, not only to become weapons for terrorists but also to be commandeered “in the arsenal of organized crime.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, of course, is increasingly concerned about these UAVs pursuing multidimensional secret pursuits up high, not only because of the risk of personal privacy raids but also—I kid you not—in fear that a drone might suddenly fall on you. Cbslocal.com’s “Groups Concerned Over Arming of Domestic Drones” noted: “The ACLU is also worried about potential drones malfunctioning and falling from the sky, adding that they are keeping a close eye on these unmanned aircraft by police departments.” Does that imply that our police departments are as careless about the actual safe functioning of these ubiquitous robots as they are regarding the covert, lawless scope of their spying on us citizens?

Amid all this concern about the rising number of drones above us in the United States, there is even less attention being given than before to their murderous siblings in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia. I agree with the very active human rights defender, Clive Stafford Smith, director of Reprieve, when he says that “drones drastically lower the threshold at which politicians are willing to kill, because there is effectively no political downside.”

He adds: “Witness the American military strikes in Waziristan (Pakistan), Yemen and Somalia, yet nobody in the United States seems to think twice about them” (“Are Drones a Superior Form of Warfare?” New York Times Letters, July 2012). Well, some of us do, but not enough to lose sleep about all those torn bodies of family and friends assassinated—or those who came to bury them, thereby becoming targets, condemned by circumstances as activists endangering American values.

But I was briefly encouraged by a report on the bare survival of American values in some of those Americans who direct, from far away, our bloodless killer drones. In her often surprising series “Declarations” in the Wall Street Journal (“Who Benefits From the ‘Avalanche of Leaks?’”June 16–17, 2012), Peggy Noonan reports that David Sanger—in his new book, Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power—discovered that “Some of those who operate the unmanned bombers are getting upset. They track victims for days [from their screens far from the killing grounds]. They watch them play with their children. ‘It freaks you out,’ a former drone operator told Mr. Sanger. ‘You feel less like a pilot than a sniper. . . .’”

But will our having drones among us here at home make us gradually less troubled by their presence as we become increasingly acquainted with these killer American ambassadors of gruesomeness abroad? The “new normal” is infectious, especially when we have such truly (to us) real-life invasive concerns as jobs, health-care rationing, and disappearing doctors, along with media and so-called representative constitutional government we can’t trust.

How many Americans would refuse to vote for Obama because he is the father of homicidal drones? And how many will bother to try to find out whether President Mitt Romney would continue to idolize them?

I ended my 2004 book, The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance (Seven Stories Press), with two questions. “The critical test for our future, to return to Mr. Jefferson [‘The People are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty’], is: Who will govern the governors? Will enough Americans have the courage to remain free?”

Heading the epilogue was an associate of Ralph Waldo Emerson, feminist Margaret Fuller: “The country needs to be born again.”

I am not optimistic. Not unless real-life civics classes—encompassing both our history and active student participation in their learning and our government—return to our schools.

Nat Hentoff

Nat Hentoff is a United Media syndicated columnist, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, and the author of, among other books Living the Bill of Rights (University of California Press, 1999) and The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance (Seven Stories Press, 2004). His latest book is At the Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years on the Jazz Scene (University of California Press, 2010).


President Barack Obama’s cherished pilotless drones—with their corollary civilian corpses—have hardly been mentioned in the 2012 elections. Even the widely available news that Obama regularly focused on a drone “kill list” to decide whom to assassinate overseas (including three Americans so far) faded away in the news mists without any rousing congressional speeches or Sunday …

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