President Obama pledges to restrict the use of killer drones to missions against America’s enemies overseas. Now lawmakers on Capitol Hill need to apply restrictions on drones capable of spying on Americans here at home. As law enforcement agencies launch ever-larger swarms of unmanned aircraft into the skies, we shouldn’t have to look over our shoulder and wonder whether we’re still living in the Land of the Free.
During a major counterterrorism-policy address at the National Defense University on Thursday, Mr. Obama admitted to being “haunted” by civilian deaths from the drone strikes that he ordered. He raised the possibility of establishing a “special court” or an “independent oversight board” to inject needed accountability into the process of inflicting death from above. A day before the president’s speech, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. confirmed for the first time in a letter to Congress that four Americans have been killed by U.S. drone strikes overseas — three by accident.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, unmanned aerial vehicles armed with missiles have conducted “surgical strikes” against al Qaeda terrorist leaders, mostly in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The blasts have unintentionally killed or wounded thousands of bystanders, fueling the region’s animosity toward Uncle Sam.
Americans suffer a less severe, but still real, form of collateral damage when subjected to heavy-handed domestic government surveillance. Drones often serve as an airborne platform for sophisticated cameras with advanced facial-recognition capability that can identify individuals on the street, day or night. Infrared sensors can even peer through walls and detect the presence of individuals in their own home. When authorities have the power to use powerful zoom lenses to leer through windows or see through walls, a man’s home is no longer his castle. It’s not surprising that a Rasmussen poll in March found that 67 percent of likely voters favor restrictions on drone use.
So far, Congress has been moving in the wrong direction, sitting back as the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies bankroll the nation’s drone infrastructure. The immigration bill currently making its way through the U.S. Senate would have authorized drone surveillance of a 100-mile-wide swath of territory inside the U.S. border. Counting the East and West coasts, more than two-thirds of the 314 million U.S. residents live within that strip and could have been subjected to the prying lens of an airborne camera. Fortunately, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, succeeded in amending the bill to reduce the range of drone surveillance from 100 miles to 25.
Congress must go further and prohibit airborne spying without court approval, as Florida and Idaho did last month. Virginia took a more cautious approach, imposing a two-year moratorium on drone use while the General Assembly considers the implications of permanent legislation.
In a free society, there’s no place for a government eye in the sky constantly watching for signs of unrest. In keeping with the Fourth Amendment, law enforcement should seek a warrant before using the powerful search machines.
Mr. Obama said the use of killer drones in “a perpetual war … will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways.” The same could be said of perpetual spying. It’s not paranoia if they really are watching you.