Hysterical and improbable, it may be, but John Villasenor, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is convinced that the oncoming proliferation of drone use in the United States will mean Americans have to fear terrorists might use drones.
In an op-ed published by the Los Angeles Times, the think tanker notes the sweeping new Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) bill that opens up US domestic airspace and how much of the concern has focused on privacy issues. He then adds there is another issue: “the threat that they could be used to carry out terrorist attacks.”
How would “terrorists” use drones to attack Americans? Villasenor, who also happens to be an electrical engineer affiliated with UCLA, provides a detailed explanation:
The technology exists to build drones that fit into a backpack and are equipped with a video camera and a warhead so they can be flown, cruise missile style, into a target. In fact, in September 2011 it was announced that the U.S. Army had signed a nearly $5-million contract with a California company, AeroVironment Inc., for the purchase of its Switchblade drones. A Switchblade launches from a tube roughly 2 feet long, sprouts wings immediately after exiting the tube and is then controlled by an operator who looks into a shoe-box-shaped viewer displaying video from the drone. It is equipped with an electric motor that is quiet even when running, and that can be switched off to enable a completely silent glide in the final moments of an approach.
Is it certain that this convoluted scenario could play out? According to Villasenor, “There’s really no dispute that it is a question of when and not if. The day will come when such drones are available to almost anyone who wants them badly enough.” And why is Villasenor so certain?
There is ample evidence that terrorist groups have already experimented with drones. As far back as the mid-1990s — practically ancient history in drone terms — the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo sect that carried out the sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway reportedly considered drones. So too have Al Qaeda and the Colombian insurgent group FARC.
Nations with a record of close ties to terrorists are another concern. Iran unveiled a drone in August 2010 that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad managed to describe as an “ambassador of death” and a “message of peace and friendship” in the same sentence.
The closest Villasenor can come to evidence is that these terror organizations almost, maybe or possibly considered the use of drones. They didn’t use them, but that doesn’t factor into Villasenor’s hyping of this “threat.” There is no cited incident or attack in his paragraph alleging terrorists have a history of use. And, on top of that, Iran’s possession of a drone to deter aggression from countries like the US or Israel that have publicly stated they are considering military strikes is lumped into this talk about a “threat” from “terrorist” use of drones.
Villasenor seems to be the only one out there right now warning about this “threat.” He went on NPR’s Fresh Air weeks ago and said:
It doesn’t take too much imagination to understand that a drone is very hard to stop. It flies low and it isn’t stopped by all of the infrastructure we have in place to make sure people don’t go to the places they’re not supposed to go to. Fences and walls and gates and barriers, it simply goes over those things. … As these drones get cheaper, more prevalent, easier to get, attract less attention, it raises the risks that they will fall into the wrong hands and be used inappropriately.
Prior to Villasenor, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) put out a bulletin on this “threat” in 2004 that suggested:
Recent intelligence reporting confirms terrorist interest in the use of Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPV). RPVs fall into two categories; Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), which are military hardware, or Remote Controlled Aircraft (RCAs), which are hobby model aircraft or commercial remote controlled aircraft. We have no specific information to indicate an imminent attack in the United States using such vehicles, but it is important to ensure that the above-named recipients are fully aware of these capabilities…
…Use of RPVs represent a potentially viable tactic against some targets defended by standard protection measures. Although RCAs have not been used by terrorists to date, because of their novel capabilities it is prudent to consider the possibility from the point of view of potential consequences, use scenarios, and indicators of such use. Terrorists may find the use of these vehicles attractive because they are relatively quiet, have a low radar signature, are easy to operate and typically have a useful payload capacity.
To sum up the warning: terrorists have not used drones yet but DHS has “intelligence reporting” that “terrorists” are “interested” and department staff imagined a scenario where “terrorists” could use them, and so the DHS will proceed as if it is 100% possible that a terror attack could occur, even if improbable.
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) looked at this myth in 2009 in their magazine. Wayne Morse, president of American Dynamic Flight Systems, which produces UAVs, said it’s unlikely that terrorists would choose UAVs. “It doesn’t make sense. UAVs are very complex and terrorists want to terrorize. How can you best do that? If you have people willing to kill themselves, that’s what terrorizes. So why aim UAVS at the Super Bowl when you can have somebody walk up and self-detonate before they go through stadium security and cause mass panic?”
It looks like Americans are in for another instance in history where a myth becomes truth. Like the ticking time bomb scenario that Bush Administration officials cited to promote support for torture, the minds of establishment and political think tanks will promote the fear of terrorists using drones.
How will this fear be used for mendacious or even nefarious purposes? Villasenor says in his op-ed that the “model aircraft” provision in the new FAA bill allowing “hobbyists to operate drones weighing up to 55 pounds with essentially no government oversight” is “inconsistent” when it comes to “anti-terrorism policy.” The hysteria could be used to make it harder for US citizens from having their own drones for civilian use. They could be required to go through a licensing system.
This is what Tim Pool, the Occupy Wall Street livestreamer who engineered the “OccuCopter,” has argued:
I believe it is inevitable that civilian drone use will be restricted by expensive permits, putting the ability into the hands of those who can afford the liabilities — not the average civilian. Drones will most likely have to be registered at some point, so that the owner or controller can be identified via wireless signal.
He thinks that civilians must be able to use drones as a “crucial counterbalance” to the “surveillance state.” Noting that many police departments already use drones, he says, “Who watches the watchmen?” While I do not endorse the use of drones, this hysteria could be used to make it harder for citizens or consumers to use drones in the future.
It doesn’t seem like Villasenor is hooked up with any Defense Department contractor or major corporation that might have some commercial interest in seeing the “hobbyist” market remain untapped. He is not pushing this fear for profit. The scenario simply appears to come from a genuine but baseless fear that terrorists will use drones in the future.
He is the bearer of a message destined to gain increased resonance and credibility in Washington, DC, just like the most hysterical purveyors of counterterrorism theories have at one point or another gained some level of respect in the last decade by working with defense and intelligence agencies. (An extreme example is Walid Shoebat.)
In 2009, Glenn Greenwald of Salon highlighted the Brookings Institution’s contributions to the world:
(1) the invasion and ongoing occupation of Iraq, in the form of Ken Pollack and Michael O’Hanlon (working in tandem, as usual, with the ultra-neoconservative American Enterprise Institute); (2) unquestioning devotion to Israel’s right-wing policies, in the form of major funder Haim Saban (“I’m a one-issue guy and my issue is Israel . . . . On the issues of security and terrorism I am a total hawk”); and (3) indefinite, preventive detention with no charges or trial in the form Benjamin Wittes (with his close associate, Bush OLC lawyer Jack Goldsmith), who also serves at the right-wing Hoover Institution and writes for The Weekly Standard
Greenwald wrote, “Only in Washington would such a group be deemed anything other than extremist.” Now, the think tank’s next major contribution could be skewing public understanding of drones. Before the CIA is forced to release any records on its “targeted killing program,” the think tank could force the public to fixate on what “terrorists” might do with drones.
Forget how the United States’ use of drones could be construed as terrorism, as rescuers and funerals are targeted in attacks. Forget how people in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen might experience a certain kind of terror that there is a covert drone war in their country that could result in their advertent or inadvertent death at any moment. Table any concern about the legal issues surrounding domestic or foreign drone use. And ignore the fact that the easiest way to ensure that terrorists do not get drones would be to curb the invention, development and production of the technology itself.
Prepare for Al Qaeda, AGAP, Hamas, Hezbollah or Al Shabab to convince US citizens to use drones on Americans.
It may not be propaganda masquerading as unquestionable truth yet, but it is in the beginning stage of becoming one more thing politicians tell Americans to fear.
When this myth becomes part of Washington consensus, which should not be difficult, there will be a number of counterterrorism policies and surveillance state expansions the US government will be able to conjure up and force Americans to accept.
Bob Fertik of Democrats.com notes that Colin Powell pushed a similar “myth” when promoting lies that led America into the Iraq War.
…An Iraqi drone found by UN weapons inspectors is of “very primitive” design and is definitely not capable of flying 500km as suggested by US Secretary of State Colin Powell, Jane’s Defence Weekly said today.
On February 5, Powell told the UN Security Council that the Iraqis possessed a drone that could fly 500km, violating UN rules that limit the range of Iraqi weapons to 150km. ” There is no possibility that the design shown on 12 March has the capability to fly anywhere near 500 kilometres,” drones expert Ken Munson said on Jane’s website (http://jdw.janes.com). ” The design looks very primitive, and the engines — which have their pistons exposed — appear to be low-powered,” he said….