BrainerdDispatch.com | Brainerd, Minnesota

BY ROBIN HENSEL/COLEEN ROWLEY

International Peace Movement

New information about drone operations contradicts the Sept. 23 op-ed piece by Col. Scott A. St. Sauver, commander of Camp Ripley. In his essay, written to deflect public criticism of so-called unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), Col. St. Sauver claimed that UAS may “be used to increase efficiency, save money, enhance safety and even save lives.” But as worldwide drone attacks escalate, more and more citizens are questioning the ethics and legality of the drone program, and realizing just how counterproductive it is in the long run.

St. Sauver denied that National Guard members are trained to operate armed Predator drones for offensive purposes at Camp Ripley. However, he did not deny that his base’s smaller surveillance drones take part in lethal missions on the “battlefield” – which now encompasses at least six countries.

Although the program is shrouded in secrecy, it is known that drone strikes are highly collaborative efforts involving teams of people at various bases across the world. In fact, hundreds of personnel, including high-paid Blackwater (or whatever the company is now called) mercenaries, may be involved in a single strike, undercutting the argument that the program is inexpensive.

Researchers at Stanford and New York Universities recently released “Living Under Drones,” a report that challenges the drones’ image as instruments of high-tech precision warfare. Drone strikes in Pakistan have killed many innocent civilians, including an estimated 176 children, thus fueling widespread public resentment and aiding recruitment of militants. While Obama administration officials champion use of the remote control aircraft for assassinating Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders, the study concludes that “high-value” targets constitute only about 2 percent of drone casualties.

Round-the-clock drone activity has terrorized civilians in Pakistan’s tribal areas, leaving families too frightened to attend weddings, funerals and other community gatherings, or to send their children to school. The strikes also cause property damage, severe economic hardship and emotional trauma. It is hard to imagine how we could hope to win the “hearts and minds” of people living under the constant buzz of well-named Predator, Reaper, Global Hawk and Raven drones, which periodically rain down Hellfire missiles.

No wonder officials in the targeted countries warn that continued use of drones serves mainly to alienate civilians and bolster support for extremists. After all, what would we think about a foreign nation that filled our skies with flying surveillance cameras and death-dealing missiles?

The Army Reserve National Guard at Camp Ripley provides training on some of the army’s 6,294 small Raven and 408 Shadow drones. When questioned by readers about the sightings of drones over Crow Wing Township, Col. St. Sauver commented that “all UAS on Camp Ripley, according to FAA regulations, must be flown within the confines of Camp Ripley and its restricted airspace.”

But Department of Defense drone operations can be conducted outside of “restricted areas” under a temporary Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) from the Federal Aviation Administration. Camp Ripley is listed as one of 88 bases under a COA, allowing drones to be flown off-premises. According to the Department of Defense’s April 2012 “Report to Congress on Future Unmanned Aircraft Systems Training, Operations, and Sustainability,” the demand for airspace to test new systems and train UAS operators exceeds the current supply. The report requests expanded access to domestic airspace for drones, claiming that they should be allowed “the same freedom of navigation, responsiveness and flexibility” as manned aircraft.

From a legal perspective, drones are increasingly viewed as a violation of the United Nations charter as well as other international and human rights law, and drone-related lawsuits have begun to spring up, filed by survivors and family members of innocent victims. The U.N. special rapporteur has called drone strikes extrajudicial killing. The Obama administration disagrees, but refuses to make public its secret memo justifying its drone assassination and “kill list.” Even Congress is not allowed to see the memo, so the Congressional Research Service was reduced to guessing what could be in it.

No matter what White House lawyers claim, the potential legal justifications for drone strikes do not hold water. For instance, it’s thought that leaders of “allied” countries like Pakistan and Yemen may have secretly consented to CIA drone bombing of their own citizens, but for obvious reasons have covered up these agreements. Consider how undemocratic this practice is, and how seriously it contradicts our stated goal of bringing democracy to the Middle East.

No one objects to the use of drone technology for such domestic operations as monitoring fires or floods, or for search and rescue operations. But using drones for law enforcement purposes raises many questions. The International Association of Chiefs of Police has expressed concern – and rightly so – about the potential arming of some of the 30,000 domestic drones to which the Federal Aviation Administration expects to grant licenses by 2020. When (largely conservative) police chiefs go on record against arming domestic drones, it cannot be claimed that the opposition consists of fear-mongering alarmists.

In their deluded pursuit of “safe,” low-casualty war, the U.S. military and CIA have not only set an illegal precedent, but they also have sparked a new international arms race. Seventy-six foreign countries have developed or are in the process of acquiring drone technology. It’s not hard to answer a journalist’s question, “Will blowback from drone warfare end up killing Americans?” American servicemen, as well as allied troops, already have been killed mistakenly. It’s just a matter of time until foreign countries have the capacity – and perhaps the motivation –to use them against U.S. civilians.

Robin Hensel of Little Falls and Coleen Rowley of Apple Valley participated in the anti-drone demonstration outside Camp Ripley on Sept. 21, International Peace Day.