Wednesday, December 14, 2011

High Plains Drone

AS THE SUN slipped below the North Dakota horizon on June 23, Sheriff Kelly Janke stood eyeball to eyeball with three men brandishing rifles at the Brossart family farm. Janke was looking for six missing cows. The men -- brothers and known troublemakers -- were unimpressed with the search warrant Janke had just shown them. At gunpoint, the Brossart brothers told him to get off their land, a 3,000-acre spread. Sheriff Janke, a wily cuss, wisely backed off and left. But it wasn't over, by gum. Not by a long shot. Thinking an armed confrontation was inevitable, Janke called for back-up from the Highway Patrol -- plus a "regional SWAT team, a bomb squad, ambulances and deputy sheriffs from three other counties," per the Tribune Washington. And then he did something that previous generations of Dakota lawmen could never do (let alone conceive of): He called in a Predator drone.

Cue the theme song from Clint Eastwood's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

Long story short: The next day, the spy drone (courtesy of the US Air Force) circled 2 miles above the prairie, pinpointed (in real time) the Brossart brothers riding all-terrain vehicles on the outskirts of their property, and (via the Predator's hi-res infrared mode) determined they were unarmed. A SWAT team then swooped in to arrest the alleged cattle rustlers. No shots were fired. The Brossarts went to jail all peaceably-like. Sheriff Janke got to ride into the sunset, Hollywood-style.

Apparently, this was the first use of a Predator to help police arrest US citizens. Despite the happy ending, some folks worry that we are opening Pandora's Box. Former Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) told the AP that using Predators for routine law enforcement without public debate or clear legal authority is a mistake. "There is no question that this could become something that people will regret," she said. Point taken. There are legitimate privacy concerns. And robust legal oversight should be put into place -- quickly. But hyperventilating over domestic drone use and the attendant "slippery slope" theories (see Glenn Greenwald) strike me as overblown. A straightforward (albeit Reaganesque) approach seems more appropriate: Trust but verify.

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