The use of drones is maybe the most important topic in the realm of national security right now, and no matter how much the powers that be would prefer not to talk about, they can't stop nervous people from asking lots of questions about them. But they can try to make people feel a little less icky about drones and maybe even start to like them a bit.
The first thing you need to know about the drone debate is that flying robots are not going away any time soon. If fact, as technology improves they will only become more important to the military, taking over more and more of the jobs that used to be done by soliders and pilots, and likely become the most frequently used weapon in most nations' arsenals. Even the most vocal critics of drones seem to have accepted this and are often not even complaining about the weapons themselves, but the manner in which they are deployed and the way their flaws are covered up.
So if you're the government (or a manufacturer who wants to sell more drones to them), how do you convince people to embrace drones and all their good qualities?
First, you start by laying ground rules. No more CIA kill missions. The Pentagon will handle that and they'll use the same rules they use for every other combat missions and no one will be able to hide it away under black ops. It's not the drones that make people nervous, it's the uncertainty. So make it very clear who the drones will be used against, and who they won't. The Obama Administration hasn't done so great on that latter point, but they're getting better. They are slowly, but surely inching toward a more concrete position on the legal, technical, and procedural questions that have plagued the program and it's no longer a topic reserved for classified hearings.
Which brings us to part two: Have lots of public discussions about it. Hold hearings. Give front page scoops to The Washington Post and The New York Times. Write memos and give them all to Congress. The more the better. That will have two effects. It will make drones seems as routine to government business as ribbon cuttings and budget projections. Then, over time, that routine will become painfully boring, possibly even annoying, to point that each new breaking story is met with a collective yawn.
Take the story in the Post today, reminding everyone that the U.S. quietly set up a drone base in Niger this year. When the U.S. set up a drone base in Saudi Arabia it stayed (mostly) secret for years. The Pentagon even got newspapers to not on report on it, arguing it was safer if no one knew. The eventual reveal felt like a stunning revelation. Now, the military sets up a new drone base in the heart of Africa and less than a month later the whole world knows about it.
The story also makes it seem fairly innocuous. It's there to protect Mali and Algeria, which are besieged by terrorists. The drones aren't armed, they only watch. These are good things, right? We're helping other countries fight the war on terror. This is the way we do business now.
Or take Senate Judiciary Committee hearing this week that focused on surveillance drones. The senators focused mostly on the small commercials drones that might be operated by private companies and individuals. But the hearing was asking if they should be allowed, but how. Can they fly alongside real planes? What can carry? What is their role? Senator Al Franken was did ask if these are too dangerous to exist. He praised them saying, "We have to make sure we can handle [citizens’ concerns] through the law so that we can [enjoy] the positive uses of this technology." See? Positive. Sure, we should set rules and have discussions, but the debate about whether we should have them at all is already over.
Maybe these changers are all just cosmetic; a way to put a nicer public face on a program that will continue to operate in a quasi-legal netherworld. All these hearings and filibusters and strategic leaks provide the appearance of transparency, which for most people is just as good as the real thing. Not get all Colonel Jessup on everyone, but there are plenty of people out there who don't even want to handle the truth—but that doesn't mean they want to be lied to. So bring drones out of the shadows and into the living room and then maybe people won't mind so much when they see them up in the skies.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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