Another hidden gem in the budget comes to light

Another hidden gem in the budget comes to light

- in Weekly Briefing

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Why are lawmakers pushing the use of drones without public debate?

The subject of unmanned aircraft systems – often referred to as “drones” — and their use in American airspace is obviously an enormously complex and controversial subject. In addition to simple safety concerns (a drone landed on the White House lawn earlier this year, for Pete’s sake), the prospect of thousands of camera-equipped machines flying over private homes and businesses at the behest of the government and/or corporate interests raises all kinds of questions about privacy, the Fourth Amendment and, as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously described it, “the right to be let alone.”

Add to this obvious reality the technological advances of recent years and the pressure on drone manufacturers to find new markets for their wares given the declining role of the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan and it’s pretty obvious that this is a subject in need of serious public dialogue.

Americans may, in the end, decide that the advantages of drones – for public safety work, for agriculture, and perhaps even for delivering Amazon packages – outweigh the safety and privacy concerns. If they do, though, it seems like a relatively modest request that such a decision take place after at least a reasonable measure of debate in which the pros and cons are publicly aired and sifted.

Bypassing the usual process

Unfortunately – especially given the feelings of paranoia that drones, by their very nature, tend to spur in a lot of people – open discussion and debate have not featured prominently in the equation in North Carolina. To the contrary, virtually all of the steps taken by state government in recent years in this important and potentially worrisome area have been shrouded in secrecy and mystery.

Consider the following:

Last year, after reports surfaced (including on NC Policy Watch) detailing the close connections between the forces pushing for drone expansion (manufacturers, the military, law enforcement and the conservative corporate lobby group known as ALEC) and the folks championing the cause in the General Assembly, the issue seemed to disappear. Lawmakers, we were told, were going to study the issue.

Nearly six months later, however, the issue miraculously re-emerged in a “special provision” slipped anonymously into the state budget bill with no debate or discussion.

Here’s how Asheville citizen journalist Barry Summers explained that new law at the time in an op-ed in the Asheville Citizen-Times:

H1099 was never heard by any Senate committee, but it has become State law nonetheless. It allows warrantless drone surveillance at all public events (including those on private property) or any place which is in ‘plain view’ of a law enforcement officer. It has other loopholes and deficiencies which taken altogether, make a mockery of the ‘right-to-privacy’ anywhere but inside your home with the shades drawn tight….

It was conceived in the NC House Committee on Unmanned Aircraft Systems, chaired by an executive of a company that develops drone technology for the military (no conflict of interest there, right?). They solicited no testimony from anyone whose focus is the preservation of civil liberties. Instead, they invited drone manufacturers, law enforcement and others who clearly wanted the NCGA to open up the skies to drones with the fewest possible restrictions. Concerns about privacy were given little consideration.”

Now fast-forward to the present.

As reporter Richard Craver explained in Sunday’s edition of the Winston-Salem Journal, House leaders have once again taken the extraordinary step of slipping another drone proposal into the omnibus budget bill. While the House did, to its credit, actually hear and pass a separate bill on the topic earlier this year before inserting it into the budget, the leaders seem uninterested in allowing the usual legislative process to run its course by allowing the Senate to take the matter up in a substantive committee that would feature public testimony and open debate.

Troubling new language

What’s more, the new proposal includes some worrisome substantive provisions – perhaps most notably that it vests vast authority for approving drone operations (and even releasing personal information obtained via drone surveillance) in one person: North Carolina’s Chief Information Officer (or CIO) — a fellow named Chris Estes.

This is from the proposal slipped into the budget on page 269 of the 329 page document:

The State CIO shall have the authority to approve or disapprove (i) the procurement or operation of an unmanned aircraft system by agents or agencies of the State or a political subdivision of the State and (ii) the disclosure of personal information about any person acquired through the operation of an unmanned aircraft system by agents or agencies of the State or a political subdivision of the State. When making a decision under this subsection, the State CIO may consult with the Division of Aviation of the Department of Transportation.”

Estes, who in his role heads a branch of government known as the Office of Information and Technology Services, has no background as a judge, law enforcement officer or even an attorney. He came to the job instead after many years working for various corporate giants. Most recently, he was the head of the “Strategy, Technology, and Innovation practice” for the security and defense contractor Booz, Allen Hamilton. He serves entirely at the pleasure of the Governor and seems to view drones – at least publicly – primarily as a means of creating manufacturing jobs in the state.

What’s really going on here?

From here on the story just gets murkier. Summers, however, has done yeoman’s work over the past few years in trying to ferret out and summarize the numerous developments and troubling aspects of the whole mess. These include, among other things,

  • Estes’ less-than-encouraging background,
  • the close connections between North Carolina drone efforts and the U.S. military,
  • the connections of State Representative John Torbett (one of the issue’s top champions) to defense contracting, and
  • the use of a North Carolina “private airfield” for drone testing that is actually the former compound of the disgraced Blackwater outfit.

None of this, of course, is to necessarily insinuate some kind of nefarious conspiracy or even, for that matter, destructive motives. It is, however, to call attention to a major issue with potentially far-reaching and even dangerous implications that’s proceeding apace in our state with virtually zero public oversight or awareness.

As Summers wrote earlier this year:

This isn’t being written to suggest that any of the people cited here are bad people, or are doing anything wrong. If there’s reason to cloak a military operation in the rhetoric of jobs and investment, and agricultural uses and firefighting and finding lost kids in the woods, let’s hear it. But in a free society, the military should not be allowed to make this kind of leap, of putting military unmanned vehicles in the skies over our heads, without the public and our local elected representatives being fully informed and engaged. It’s their job to protect us – it’s our job to protect our free society.”

Going forward

Where all of this goes from here is anyone’s guess. Unlike a lot of items on the agenda at the legislature these days, drones are one issue with which a lot of folks on the right have serious concerns. Yesterday, there was what seemed to be a promising development when the conservative John Locke Foundation held a luncheon on the topic. Unfortunately, however, that event turned out to be just a P.R. show for a company that’s in the drone business.

In the Winston-Salem Journal article, however, a spokesperson for Locke seemed to indicate that the group would favor, at a minimum, some additional protections to clarify what’s on and off limits to government drones. Let’s hope state lawmakers heed this obvious advice and that advocates for privacy don’t have to send in a drone of their own the next time they want to know what our elected officials are doing on this important subject.