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Charles Krauthammer and Conor Friedersdorf Reveal How Little they Know About Domestic Drones

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Thursday, May 17, 2012 at 12:33 PM

As Raffaela noted earlier, Atlantic blogger Conor Friedersdorf has written in praise (sort of) of conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer for the latter’s opposition to domestic drones. I would consider this a heartwarming example of a cross-ideological meeting of the minds, except that meeting takes place on particularly ignorant ground. If this sort of paranoia is where Right and Left are going to come together over robotics, we’ve got a tough few years ahead of us in thinking through the policy issues surrounding domestic UAVs.

Speaking on Fox News, Krauthammer said the following:

Friedersdorf transcribes Krauthammer’s words, which he describes as a “rant,” as follows (I haven’t personally checked the transcription):

I’m going to go hard left on you. I’m going to go ACLU. I don’t want regulations. I don’t want restrictions. I want a ban on this. Drones are instruments of war. The Founders had a great aversion to any instruments of war, the use of the military, inside of the United States. They didn’t like standing armies. It has all kinds of statutes against using the army in the country. A drone is a high-tech version of an old Army-issue musket. It ought to be used in Somalia to hunt the bad guys. But not in America. I don’t want to see it hovering over anybody’s home. You can say we’ve got satellites, we’ve got Google Street, and London has a camera on every street corner.

But that’s not an excuse to cave in on everything else and accept a society where you’re always being watched by the government. This is not what we want. I would say you ban it under all circumstances. And I would predict — I’m not encouraging, but I would predict the first guy who uses a Second Amendment weapon to bring a drone down that’s hovering over his house is gonna be a folk hero in this country.

Friedersdorf responds:

I find this rant fascinating. In one way, it’s welcome evidence that there are at least some threats to civil liberties that bother prominent neoconservatives. But it’s disheartening and telling that Krauthammer recognizes that the institutional right is so far gone on these issues that to express discomfort with flying robots spying on American citizens from above is to take a “hard-left” position.

Also interesting is that Krauthammer considers drones an instrument of war, but has no objection to America operating them in the airspace of countries we haven’t declared war against. As he sees it, the presence of terrorists in America doesn’t justify sending drones to hover above the houses of innocent people. But sending drones to hover above the houses of innocent people in other countries?

That’s all good.

Still, when a prominent neoconservative calls for a ban on the domestic use of drones and invokes the aversion of the Founders to a standing army, it’s a good day.

All of which provokes one question: Do either of these men have the slightest idea what they’re talking about?

For one thing, Krauthammer’s account is quite unfair to the ACLU—which has not urged a ban on domestic drones. Indeed, at a recent Brookings event on the subject, Catherine Crump of the ACLU took a nuanced and constructive view of the subject that acknowledged important civilian applications for robotic aviation technologies.

More fundamentally, the issue before the FAA right now is not limited to the flying of “instruments of war” over the United States. It is also, as Congress put it (see Section 332), the development “of a comprehensive plan to safely accelerate the integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system.” The key word in there is “civil.” Drones don’t raise concerns about standing armies or using the military domestically that haven’t been around for decades. The most difficult questions concerning domestic drones don’t involve weapons at all. They involve civilians flying UAVs for non-military purposes. We’re talking about crop dusters. We’re talking about traffic-monitoring UAVs. We’re talking about journalism. We’re talking, in the longer run, about unmanned civilian cargo transport and, I suspect, air travel. And yes, we’re talking about law enforcement.

All of these uses raise issues, some of them privacy issues, but neither Left nor Right should confuse these privacy issues—which are real and important—with the weaponized nature of UAVs as deployed by the military and CIA abroad. We don’t say, after all, that because helicopters and jets are used as weapons, they therefore they have no valid use in domestic aviation. It is equally silly to say such a thing about robotic and remotely-piloted technologies.

And no, a drone is not a high-tech version of Army-issue muskets—which, in any event, had important domestic civilian applications and received constitutional protection, not a ban. Drones are a class of technology that has a huge range of potential applications, military and civilian alike. To look at the armed Predator and call for a ban on domestic drones is like looking at an F16 and calling for a ban on the internal combustion engine.

UPDATE: I have clarified and corrected one aspect of this post in response to criticism from Marcy Wheeler. I explain here. This post has been changed to reflect what I meant to say.