When the Defense Industry and Congress Are Indistinguishable: Drone Edition

It's moments like this that underscore the near, if not complete, evaporation between the interests of the war industry and the public entity that's supposed to have oversight over it, the U.S. Congress. Read this post from Colorlines' Seth Freed Wessler and try to describe where the drone lobby and industry end and where the House of Represenatives Unmanned Systems (or Drone) Caucus begins: 


On my way to a briefing on Capitol Hill yesterday I stumbled upon a lively scene in a foyer at the Rayburn House Office Building. A bunch of beefy guys in suits or polo shirts or military garb were gathered around tables at the “Unmanned Systems Caucus Technology & Science Fair,” which was not a science fair like the kind I remember. This science fair, organized by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, was actually a drone show and on tables around the room sat some very fancy, very tiny flying things. The toys were mostly military devices that the company representatives said they’re now marketing to cops and civilians. Table hands from companies like Lockheed Martin, Boeing and RP Flight Systems told me they’d come to show the hottest new drones, robots and mini blimps to House members and staffers. They were there at the invitation of the above mentioned caucus, which notes on it’s website:

The mission of the U.S. House Unmanned Systems Caucus is to educate members of Congress and the public on the strategic, tactical, and scientific value of unmanned systems; actively support further development and acquisition of more systems, and to more effectively engage the civilian aviation community on unmanned system use and safety.

A rep from RP Flight Systems explained that his companies drones helped put out fires. But across the room a man in camo who looked just out of combat showed me his drone for cops.

Of course this isn't the first time a lobby, trade group or industry, especially defense contractors, was allowed to set up what seems to be a sort of trade show -- in the case, labled a "science fair" -- in a congressional office building. And drones are big business now; not only are they the national security state's new favorite toy, but, as Wessler mentions, local law enforcement in the U.S. is now free to acquire and pursue permission to use unmanned operations, albeit not those of the Predator or Reaper vareity used by the CIA and Pentagon in the likes of Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia.

How Did We Get Here?

Congress and the Obama administration approved in early 2012 opening U.S. skies to drones following an aggressive lobbying push by the defense industry and the largest unmanned systems trade group in the U.S., the  Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) -- which doubled its lobbying expenditures from 2010 to 2011, spending nearly $300,000. In the process, the defense industry's man on Capitol Hill Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) was convinced to start an Unmanned Systems Caucus in the U.S. House, as industry showered the caucus members with cash.

Readying American airspace for drones falls under FAA jurisdiction. The FAA announced in May it had successfully streamlined the process for public agencies, including law enforcement bodies around the country, to begin operating their own UAVs. It was official: Release the hounds. The FAA estimates the number of domestic drones in the U.S. will hit around 30,000 by 2030, which, naturally, has many right and left on the political spectrum worried about privacy and civil liberties issues. Local police forces will be responsible for a large share of new UAVs. Remember the film Minority Report, when the spider-like robots hunted Tom Cruise’s character? Well, we’re not terribly far from it. And as usual, technology is far in front of not only our comprehension of the ramifications of its use, but of the legal framework necessary to protect Americans’ civil liberties and rights.

Overlapping Missions

The "Mission & Main Goals" section of the Unmanned Systems Caucus' website is fairly indistinguishable from the mission of the trade group AUVSI's mission. 

As Wessler pointed out in his post, here's the drone caucus' mission statement: 

The mission of the U.S. House Unmanned Systems Caucus is to educate members of Congress and the public on the strategic, tactical, and scientific value of unmanned systems; actively support further development and acquisition of more systems, and to more effectively engage the civilian aviation community on unmanned system use and safety.

Here's AUVSI's About page:

Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International is the world's largest non-profit organization devoted exclusively to advancing the unmanned systems and robotics community. Serving more than 7,000 members from government organizations, industry and academia, AUVSI is committed to fostering, developing, and promoting unmanned systems and robotic technologies. AUVSI members support defense, civil and commercial sectors.  

Mission Statement
Advancing the unmanned systems and robotics community through education, advocacy and leadership.

Vision Statement
To improve humanity by enabling the global use of robotic technology in everyday lives.

Take out some of AUVSI's explicit language about its organization's members, and there isn't much difference between the two entities' missions. AUVSI's values are the Unmanned System Caucus members' values.

This, of course, is no mistake. As mentioned earlier, Buck McKeon and other representatives established this caucus at a time of rapid buildup of drone technology and proliferation, with the help of AUVSI's vigorous lobbying push. Caucus members will claim drones have valuable, justifiable uses, and there are. For instance, for rescue capabilities or natural disaster uses. And they will claim drone production brings jobs to their districts, and a buildup does that. But that doesn't excuse the members of basically acting as inside proxies for this industry's benefit, though it's no mystery as to why that is; just look at the political contributions given to these members. And it doesn't excuse the more much more insidious and complicated uses of drones like the aforementioned Predator, Reaper, Global Hawk and others used overseas. The Obama administration wants drones to continue its shadow wars, from Africa to Pakistan, that have yielded hundreds of drone strikes -- and the deaths of hundreds of civilians, with many more than that injured, according to data meticulously collected by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. There is little public debate over these strikes, largely because the administration, while publicly talking about the CIA's drone policy, will not officially acknowledge it exists, nor will it divulge the legal justification for targeted killings. There is little if any mention of this aspect of drone usage on the Unmamned Systems Caucus website. 

Business As Usual

All we see is cheerleading from our elected officials. But, hey, "it's just business." Defense and aerospace market research and analysis firm The Teal Group reported in April global expenditures of UAVs will rise from $6.6 billion annually to $11.4 billion annually by 2022. The Pentagon, which has spent $26 billion on drones since 2001, is putting more emphasis on fighting its battles and protecting its interests with drones rather than troops. In fiscal year 2011, defense contractors took in over $373 billion in contracts from the Pentagon, so they know the drill.

This all illustrates the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex -- the flow of money and favors between Congress, the bureaucracy and industry -- quite well. In addition, the frontiers are expanding for those that favor drone proliferation, no matter what the motivation.  Demand is high for this sanitized method of waging war, and the defense industry is itching to build more drones and export them overseas as soon as possible

When the line between industry profit motives and public officials' priorities is beyond the point of blurry to the extent of being non-existent, there is a problem for true representative democracy, to say the least. When Congress is beholden to its donors and not voters or the public citizenry, the system is broken. And there is no better way to illustrate the corrosive impact of money's effect on American politics than this system of defense spending and the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex. The toy du jour for this system is the drone. New technology, same game.


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