Watch the Skies (They Soon Will Be Watching You)

False flag or not, the Yemen-originated explosive packages of a couple of weeks ago are paying dividends to the U.S. military operation there. The White House is now making noises about stepping up drone attacks on suspected Al Qaeda in Yemen. U.S. forces have been using unmanned drones in Yemen against the insurgents for several months, but only for reconnaissance. Given the fact that the Chicago-bound bombs, if that is in fact what they were, were shipped from Yemen, the administration now has an excuse to do what it has evidently been desirous of doing all along: arming the drones with missiles. Permission from the Yemeni government has not immediately been forthcoming, so there may be some arm-twisting and/or bribery involved.

The drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), of choice, in Yemen and elsewhere overseas, is the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator. This is the weapon, originally tested in Kosovo and the Balkans, when armed with the aptly named Hellfire missle, that has instilled such fear in the Islamist insurgents in Pakistan. The U.S. military–and, even more commonly, the CIA–has grown quite attached to this little beauty. Twenty-seven feet long with a wingspan of nearly fifty feet, it has a maximum speed of 135mph, a cruising of 2000 miles, and can stay in the air a whopping 24 hours without landing. Best of all, the pilot can operate it from the safety and convenience of, say, an airbase in Arizona, kill a few people in perfect comfort from his desktop in the afternoon and head home for dinner, after stopping off for a beer at his local bar.

It is in Pakistan where up to now the killing power of the Predator and the larger Reaper has come to the fore. Official Pakistan figures show more than 700 Pakistanis were killed during the course of 44 drone attacks in 2009. According to Pakistan’s Dawn News, the vast majority of these were innocent Pakistani citizens.

Wars are useful to states in various ways. Aside from gaining territory or access to natural resources, they also provide a terrific real-world laboratory for developing weapons for use in future wars, and for domestic use as well. Warlike states invariably begin to oppress their own citizenry, much as they beleaguer their neighbors. Especially ominous is the civilian use employed in spying on, and perhaps one day, bringing violence to bear upon civilian groups some government–local, state, or national–doesn’t like.

We find an example of police use of drones in the unlikely spot of rural Gaston County, North Carolina. There, the local police have invested a modest amount of their budget in a Cyberbug, a little brother of the Predator and Reaper. The Cyberbug, a product of Cyber Aerospace of Tulsa, OK, is available in a variety of sizes, from the 2.5 pound “micro” bug up to the relatively gigantic 42-pound version. While none has yet been reported as having been armed, the “bug” can carry live-television cameras to “to locate snipers, access air strike damage, follow convoys and monitor the battlefield.” Those are the military uses to which aspires. In the civilian world, such as Gaston County, their 14-pound Cyberbug is used to spy on, well, civilians.

In 2006, in one of the earliest uses of unmanned drones to spy on a populace anywhere, the Gaston police in 2006 sent a Cyberbug aloft to watch over a gathering of motorcyclists at the local fairgrounds. The next year, in 2007, according to researcher John Whitehead, “insect-like” drones were used to spy on political gatherings in New York and Washington. Writes Whitehead: “[W]hile the idea of airborne drones policing America’s streets may seem far-fetched, like something out of a sci-fi movie, it is no longer in the realm of the impossible. Now, it’s just a matter of how soon you can expect them to be patrolling your own neighborhood. The crucial question, however, is whether Americans will be able to limit the government’s use of such surveillance tools or whether we will be caught in an electronic nightmare from which there is no escape.”