President Barack Obama asserts, “There has never been a drone used on an American citizen on American soil.”
But that quote reported last week by Reuters has been contradicted on several fronts.
The department’s permit from the Federal Aviation Administration clears the law-enforcement drones to fly up to 300 feet, but limits them to operating inside a working crime scene.
And in the heartland, local law-enforcement agents borrowed a U.S. Air Force Predator Drone to help them identify and round up cattle rustlers in the Dakotas.
Playing along, reporters on Thursday asked the president whether the U.S. government could target a citizen on American soil.
Obama appeared to rule that out, but left himself some wiggle room.
“We respect and have a whole bunch of safeguards in terms of how we conduct counterterrorism operations outside of the United States. The rules outside of the United States are going to be different than the rules inside the United States,” he said.
Speaking vaguely about “a range of capabilities,” Obama never mentioned the unmanned aerial craft during his State of the Union address Tuesday night.
“We must enlist our values in the fight,” the president said.
“In the months ahead, I will continue to engage with Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.”
That was small solace to John Whitehead, president of the Virginia-based Rutherford Institute.
“The urgency of formulating legislative safeguards to address the rapid, uncritical adoption of drone technology around the country cannot be understated,” said Whitehead.
“No matter where one stands on the issue of drone use domestically, it is clear that we need to take a well-reasoned approach to how drone technology will be implemented and what safeguards are necessary to ensure that Americans’ safety, privacy and civil liberties are not jeopardized.”
The drone issue heated up when the Obama Justice Department belatedly released a secret legal brief outlining the administration’s case for the targeted killing of terrorists — including U.S. citizens.
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell has sent mixed signals about drones, as well.
The Republican would not say last week whether he would sign or veto legislation placing a two-year moratorium on drones within the commonwealth.
Approved overwhelmingly by the House of Delegates and awaiting action in the state Senate, House Bill 2012 would prohibit state and local law enforcement from using drone technology until July 1, 2015.
Asked by Watchdog.org to comment on HB 2012, McDonnell press secretary Jeff Caldwell said only that the governor “will review the legislation when it reaches his desk.”
But last year, McDonnell expressed support for police use of drones. Commenting on WTOP radio last May, he called it “great … absolutely the right thing to do.”
Earlier this month, Charlottesville passed a Rutherford-style resolution curbing the use of drones within the city limits. Seattle followed suit when its mayor ordered the police department to drop plans to deploy drones. At least 11 states are considering legislation to restrict drone use.
While Rutherford has circulated draft resolutions that cities and states can use to curb drone operations, the American Civil Liberties Union doubts they will have much effect. The ACLU has flatly declared that states won’t be able to stop federal agencies or border agents from using drones.
The FAA Reauthorization Act, quietly signed into law by Obama last year, authorized the domestic use of drones for a wide range of functions, both public and private, governmental and corporate.
The FAA, under orders to draw up guidelines for domestic use of drones by 2015, predicts that 30,000 of the craft could be aloft in U.S. airspace by 2020.
Virginia already has several designated launch sites, according to FAA records. They include Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, a U.S. Marine Corps facility north of Fredericksburg and the Defense Advanced Research Products Agency in Arlington.
A top FAA official said Wednesday no armed drones will be permitted in U.S. skies.
“We currently have rules in the books that deal with releasing anything from an aircraft, period,” said Jim Williams, head of the agency’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Office.
“Those rules are in place and that would prohibit weapons from being installed on a civil aircraft,” he was quoted by the Washington Times. “We don’t have any plans of changing (those rules) for unmanned aircraft.”
But Williams declined to answer whether drones could be armed when patrolling U.S. borders.
Manufacturers have confirmed that drones can be equipped with automatic weapons, grenade launchers, tear gas and Tasers.