The subject of 'drones' has become increasingly divisive of late. The Unmanned Arial Vehicle (UAV) has become the CIA's primary means of assassinating suspected terrorists and insurgents overseas, hell-bent on waging war against the U.S. and the West. Basic constitutional rights such as personal security (the right not to be killed, injured or abused), personal liberty, or the right to a fair trial, are, it seems, no longer guaranteed, even if you own a U.S. passport.
It is the killing of U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen in 2011 that has sparked a fierce debate over the potential use of hellfire clad drones in U.S. airspace, and the executive power of the Commander in Chief to authorize strikes with lethal intent.
But in the aftermath of the two bombs detonated on April 15, 2013, at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, it is the use of UAV technology that could bolster, rather than violate, the basic constitutional rights of law abiding citizens in the U.S. homeland.
The contemporary international security environment has morphed rapidly since the Cold War into unconventional threats transcending the traditional boundaries of warfare, equipment and protocol. Countering the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan has required the U.S. Department of Defense to rapidly evolve its mindset in both doctrine and equipment.
Tanks, air defense fighters and frigates may be effective against the likes of Kim Jon Un's conventional army but not against the asymmetric tendencies of the Taliban, al Qaeda or domestic terror groups. UAVs and their ability to conduct non-kinetic, covert, and enduring surveillance have, and continue to be, instrumental in the war against terror.
Sanctioning kinetic activity using drones in U.S. airspace, as part of a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) concept of operations, is under no circumstances acceptable -- the risk of collateral is too great and the Rules of Engagement (RoE) lack significant credibility and remain controversial, as demonstrated by the CIA in Yemen. But would daily surveillance from an airborne platform in the days leading up to and during the Boston Marathon have prevented the tragedy, or at least provided law enforcement officials with greater situational awareness in pursuing the perpetrators?
Twenty-four-hour pattern of life (POL) surveillance by a UAV over the areas of intense crowd activity along the route may have unveiled suspicious activity. POL is exactly that, the monitoring of areas of interest for human activity. UAVs sit for days over designated target areas all over the Middle East monitoring suspects and tracking their activity. The amount of surveillance and intelligence gathering is staggering and essential to build a case for 'lifting' a target. The culmination of such activity is not, as most would believe given recent reporting, the launch of a Hellfire missile, but the trigger mechanism to apprehend the subject using ground forces. I was a chief operations officer in Baghdad working with a specialized unit responsible for seizing high value targets within various insurgent networks. The UAV (non-kinetic) was our principle source of intelligence -- the camera feed was detailed and enabled the successful pursuit of those wishing to wreak havoc in Iraq's capital and the region.
Infrared-capable cameras provide the eyes of the UAV, and technology exists to monitor frequencies for chatter that might also alert authorities to any terror plots. The suggestion of 'eyes and ears' surveillance sparks fierce debate over the right 'to enjoy privacy in all matters in which the rights of others are not violated.'
But should both not be able to coexist in the pursuit of providing the American public with improved security at public events, given the nature of today's heightened security landscape? At the heart of any considered plans for increased surveillance activity is the constitutional right to 'be secure in one's person, house, papers, vehicle, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures' -- this right should not be compromised in any way whatsoever.
Closed-circuit TV you might argue is another divisive option. The City of London is littered with cameras on almost every corner providing blanket coverage but such surveillance equipment would be permanent and have constraints on tracking suspicious subjects as well as limited or no ability to monitor chatter. CCTV capability while potentially a deterrent (the 2012 London Olympics passed without incident) mostly comes into play post an event and during any subsequent investigation to track and apprehend the person or group responsible.
'If you see something, say something' should also be reinforced. In the case of Boston, it appears two bags were left unattended near the finish line. A member of the public noticing the suspicious packages may have alerted law enforcement officials early but most of the spectators will have been focusing on and enjoying the competitors finishing the race. The use of a UAV would provide security officials with an unobtrusive and dedicated eye in the sky.
It is building the trust of the American public that provides one of the biggest hurdles to exploring UAVs as a viable option for domestic security. Unfortunately, the unintended consequences of CIA drone operations overseas may well have pushed the notion of using UAVs as a valuable proactive and preventative homeland security capability, beyond what the American public is willing to accept. The idea of increased surveillance by UAVs may well be unpopular, but should proactive security surveillance measures harnessing the latest technology not be a viable alternative to the reactive scramble for evidence in the aftermath of incidents like the Boston marathon bombings?
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