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Ban on Arming Domestic Drones: Let’s Draw a Line in the Sand

Chris Calabrese,
Legislative Counsel, ACLU Washington Legislative Office
Jay Stanley,
Senior Policy Analyst,
ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project
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June 15, 2012

Last week Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) and the House of Representatives drew an important line in the sand. Holt offered an amendment to the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations bill to bar any DHS funding for “the purchase, operation, or maintenance of armed unmanned aerial vehicles.” (The amendment was adopted and the bill has passed the House.) While moves to arm domestic drones are widely seen as beyond the pale and have not really been contemplated (with the exception of one sheriff in Texas who mused about mounting less-lethal weapons like rubber bullets on unmanned aircraft), we believe it’s crucial to get ahead of any possible trend.

We have unfortunately sometimes seen our overseas battlefields bleed across our own borders. As part of the debate over the National Defense Authorization Act and indefinite detention, for example, we already witnessed a willingness by Congress to move the battlefield in the war on terror into our own backyards. Importing weaponized drones to the domestic context would be the latest and arguably most extreme example of the militarization of our police. This trend, fueled in part by companies seeking domestic markets for weapons of war, has already led to many tragic abuses.

From their controversial deployment for targeted killings and other uses abroad, we know that armed drones are incredibly powerful and dangerous weapons. When domestic law enforcement officers can use force from a distance, it may become too easy for them to do so. When it becomes easier to do surveillance, surveillance is used more, and when it becomes easier to use force, force will be used more. We have seen this dynamic with “less lethal” weapons such as Tasers; since 2001, over 500 people in the United States have died after being tased, according to Amnesty International, and Tasers are often used in clearly unnecessary situations—for example, in retaliation against nonviolent people who have angered a police officer. Drones may also be more likely to result in harm to innocent bystanders.

As we have documented extensively, the most urgent threat that domestic drones pose at this time is as instruments of mass surveillance and other invasions of privacy. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has proposed legislation to address these concerns, and we agree that Fourth Amendment principles must certainly govern any domestic use of drones.

But we believe that support for the Holt Amendment sends a powerful message: armed drones have no place in America. We must not rush into embracing a dangerous new military technology.

Support the Holt Amendment here.

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