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June 20th, 2012 COREY PEIN | News Stories
 

Spying the Friendly Skies

Drone aircraft used for recon in Afghanistan are now in Portland.

news1_drone_3833IMAGE: Federico Yankelevich
Military surveillance drones of the kind used to spy on Taliban targets for U.S. forces in Afghanistan are now based in Portland, but U.S. government officials are unclear how or when they might be used over the city or elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest.

An unclassified 2011 U.S. Air Force document revealed Portland’s status as a drone home. Publicintelligence.net first reported on the document last week, followed by Wired. 

The Air Force document shows “current and projected” U.S. Defense Department operations involving “remote-piloted aircraft” at two Oregon sites, Arlington and Portland.

It’s already well known that a Boeing subsidiary, Insitu, builds drones in Bingen, Wash., about 70 miles down the Columbia River from its test airfield in Arlington. It is news, however, that Portland is a home to drones, although the specific location where they are stored remains undisclosed by the military.

A spokesman for U.S. Special Operations Command listed as the drone operator told WW in an email that the Air Force map contained inaccurate information. “U.S. Special Operations Command does not have nor will it have [a drone] base in Portland,” wrote deputy public affairs officer Ken McGraw.

But U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) confirms the drones are already here.

“Portland is basically a storage area for a few small drones attached to a nearby military group, neither of which are proposed launching sites for drones,” Wyden said in a statement to WW. “However, in the event of a natural disaster or other legitimate need, they could be launched from there, but it is inappropriate to say that they are primarily launch sites.”

The rapidly expanding domestic presence of remote-controlled spy planes—often without public knowledge or debate—is already sparking controversy. “We have a right to be concerned that the military is bringing drones home,” says Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst with the speech, privacy and technology program of the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, D.C. 

This year’s Federal Aviation Administration budget bill requires the agency to speed up plans for civilian drone use in the U.S. The FAA estimates 30,000 civilian law enforcement drones might be flying by 2030.

Jennifer Lynch, a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy advocacy organization, says the FAA bill will make the rollout of drone use less deliberative.

“We have no information on the drones public entities are flying, how many they have and where they’re authorized to fly,” Lynch says. “I think that’s pretty concerning.”

Wyden pushed the FAA bill. In 2009, Wyden backed a $3.2 million earmark for Insitu. Its parent, Boeing, donated $10,000 to Wyden’s campaign fund in 2009 and 2010.

Wyden spokesman Tom Towslee says the senator’s support for domestic drone use is no sign he is weakening his opposition to warrantless wiretapping, cellphone tracking and other surveillance programs that raise civil liberties issues. He calls his boss a “privacy hawk.”

“We’re not going down this road with the idea that this is going to be used to spy on people,” Towslee says. “It’s an economic development issue. It’s a jobs issue.”

The Air Force document indicates Portland could become home to the Raven and the Wasp, two small, hand-launched surveillance drones made by Monrovia, Calif.-based AeroVironment. The Wasp—weighing just under 16 ounces with a 28-inch wingspan—comes loaded with optical and infrared cameras. The larger Raven—with a 54-inch wingspan—has a longer range. Both have been used for reconnaissance and spying in Afghanistan.

The Oregon Army National Guard’s 41st Special Troops Battalion has a drone operator in Pendleton. A spokesperson at the Oregon Military Department didn’t return WW’s call.

In Seattle, the police chief came under fire this year for testing a surveillance drone without approval from the City Council. Houston police also reportedly conducted secret drone tests, and state police in Texas used a Wasp drone during the execution of a search warrant. 

The Portland Police Bureau isn’t using drones, but The Rap Sheet, the Portland Police Association’s newsletter, republished an article about building pressure on local police to deploy drones. 

An April 2012 Air Force policy directive says domestic drone flights may not target U.S. citizens, but information “incidentally” acquired will be provided to federal or local law enforcement agencies.

John Villasenor, a professor of electrical engineering at UCLA who has written papers on the policy implications of drone use for the Brookings Institution, says drones’ powerful and constant spying capabilities make current laws and precedents on aerial surveillance obsolete.

“Drones are part of this inexorable growth in technologies that are logging almost anything that we do,” Villasenor says. “It’s a sobering time for those of us who came of age in a world where we could move about without necessarily having someone perform surveillance on us.” 

 
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