How Not to Argue for Domestic Drones

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As law-enforcement agencies and private companies begin to use unmanned aerial vehicles, Rich Lowry counsels against panic -- but doesn't even address skeptics' worries.soaringdrone.banner.reuters.jpg

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In Rich Lowry's latest column, the National Review editor accuses opponents of domestic drone use of being Luddites masquerading as civil libertarians. "Drones are coming no matter what," he writes, accurately. "They will be too inexpensive and too useful to ignore." He dismisses the idea that we should ban law enforcement from using them because they are weapons of war.

"We don't kill people with drones; we kill them with Hellfire missiles," he writes. "The drone is just the platform." He fails to note that police officers are already talking about weaponizing drones.

That sort of oversight recurs throughout the column, which makes a theoretical case that drones can be used responsibly, but does nothing to advance the prospects of that optimal outcome.

Says Lowry:

Drones will no doubt raise novel issues under the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable search and seizure. They will require rules. The same is true of any technology, of course. The Supreme Court held unanimously earlier this year that police can't attach a GPS tracker on someone's vehicle without a warrant. This isn't reason to ban all use of GPS trackers by law enforcement ...

As drones proliferate for commercial and other private uses, it is foolish to expect law enforcement to forgo them. Already, the Border Patrol uses drones down at the border. One day we will marvel that there was a time when a police drone wasn't first on the scene of a shooting .... Ultimately, it is not the technology that matters, but the use to which it is put. A can of pepper spray is technologically unsophisticated. Yet it can be an instrument of cruelty if wielded arbitrarily by a cop. The drone is potentially a powerful tool. Vigilance is advisable; panic is silly.

My panic is largely grounded in my expectation that Americans won't practice advisable levels of vigilance. Were National Review, an entity theoretically distrustful of big government, publishing lots of columns anticipating the ways drones might be misused, and pushing hard for laws to prevent them from violating privacy and civil liberties, I'd worry less about the way America will employ drones, for when the ACLU and the conservative movement are both invested in preventing some government excess the odds are much higher that the coalition will be successful.

But the actual conservative movement, including National Review, spends very little time championing the limits on police power that are necessary to prevent abuses. More frequently, it opposes limits on government when the power in question flows to an American with a uniform or badge. Democrats are often uninterested in reining in police or worried doing so will hurt their electoral prospects. Police unions and blue solidarity cause much actual misconduct to go unpunished.

As a result, Americans weighing whether to support domestic use of drones by police are rational to presume that they'll be abused far more often than they would be if Republicans and Democrats were less deferential to law enforcement, and the conservative movement had established itself as a credible champion of liberty -- rather than of John Yoo.

I've no doubt that Lowry genuinely wants vigilance when it comes to drones, and to his credit, he has opened up National Review's pages to folks who are more alarmed by the technology than he is. 

But he also complains that "Senator Rand Paul considers them a clear-and-present danger to American freedom and is offering legislation to require a warrant every time one takes flight, except to patrol the border or in extraordinary circumstances." Isn't Senator Paul's legislation, which doesn't ban drones but restricts their use, exactly the sort of thing Lowry ought to support?

His dismissive opposition, paired with zero other suggestions for what would entail prudent limits, shows why his seemingly moderate position on drones is effectively useless for limiting abuses.

In theory, he wants vigilance. In practice, he's doing nothing to ensure it happens, and opposing the only senator trying to bring it about. So how about a National Review symposium on the rules and legislation that's needed to safeguard liberty as national and local police agencies fly more drones overhead?

I'll bet Senator Paul would participate.


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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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