Drone protester jailed as drones drop from the sky


Graphic from Remotely Operated Aircraft Operations in the National Airspace System, FAA website

Graphic from Remotely Operated Aircraft Operations in the National Airspace System, FAA website

Bill Moyers reports that Grady Flores, a 59-year-old peace activist in New York state, has begun serving a six-month prison sentence:

And what exactly did Grady Flores do to warrant spending the next six months in jail? She photographed a peaceful protest outside Hancock Field Air National Guard Base near Syracuse, New York. The base is where the US trains pilots to launch drone strikes in the Middle East, particularly in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. It wasn’t a crime for her to be taking pictures of the demonstration, but when she briefly and unintentionally — yes, unintentionally — stepped onto a road that belongs to the base, she violated what authorities called “an order of protection,” which had been issued in 2012 to forbid protesters from approaching the home or workplace of Col. Earl Evans, a commander of the 174th Attack Wing of the Air National Guard. She had never met Evans, never threatened him, never showed any intention of harming him.

Nonetheless, a town justice, David Gideon, issued the order to “protect” the Colonel from the activists. That’s right — the commander of a major military operation, piloting drones on lethal missions half-way around the world, requested a court order of protection against a group of mostly gray-haired demonstrators whom he had never met. In stepping briefly on the roadway at the base, Grady Flores violated that order, despite the fact that, as she says, “We weren’t at the security gate. We were out at the roadway.”

Now get this: The order issued by Judge Gideon was of the sort commonly used against victims of sexual or domestic abuse. “The legal terms ‘victim’ and ‘witness’ have been expanded in this case in a way that’s new and unique in the state of New York,” said attorney Lance Salisbury at a press conference yesterday before Grady Flores was hauled off to jail.

It was not Flores’ first protest. The Upstate Coalition to Ground the Drones and End the Wars has been protesting the drone program since 2010.

President Obama and the Pentagon insist that using drones in pursuit of terrorists causes minimal civilian casualties and protects American troops, but Grady Flores takes issue with that justification. She told us she had been moved, in particular, by reports of the staggering numbers of civilians killed by US drones, and she says her fears were confirmed by documents recently leaked to journalists at The Intercept revealing that during one five-month stretch, 90 percent of those killed in one part of Northeastern Afghanistan were not the intended target.

Begone, before somebody drops a house on you, too!

Sad to say, but accidentally dropping ordnance on foreigners is not liable to get the attention of most Americans. If a woman picking okra in North Waziristan looks like a terrorist to a drone flying at 20,000 feet as seen on a computer monitor half a world away, lobbing a Hellfire missile at her is no big deal to many Americans. Better safe than sorry. They felt the same way about abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

But what if those same drones started dropping like Dorothy’s house into American neighborhoods? To meet “a virtually insatiable appetite” for new drones and new drone pilots, the military is looking to expand training operations in U.S. airspace, like the missions flown out of Hancock Field, or Grand Forks Air Force Base, ND, or Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. They are even hiring private contractors to meet the demand. What could go worng?

Coincidentally, drone crashes were back in the news this week:

A record number of Air Force drones crashed in major accidents last year, documents show, straining the U.S. military’s fleet of robotic aircraft when it is in more demand than ever for counterterrorism missions in an expanding array of war zones.


The Reaper has been bedeviled by a rash of sudden electrical failures that have caused the 2 1/2-ton drone to lose power and drop from the sky, according to accident-investigation documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. Investigators have traced the problem to a faulty starter-generator, but have been unable to pinpoint why it goes haywire or devise a permanent fix.

The Washington Post reports this week that “all but one of the 20 Air Force drone accidents last year occurred overseas.” These included the Reaper operated from Corpus Christi by U.S. Customs and Border Protection that went haywire and had to ditch off the coast of California. Then there was that Global Hawk flown out of Naval Air Station Patuxent River that crashed in Maryland in 2012. The reported cause was mechanical failure. “We have reliability challenges with this block of aircraft,” Capt. James B. Hoke told reporters.

And the Predator out of Hancock Air Base that crashed into Lake Ontario in November 2014. And the Predator that crashed near Creech Air Force Base in 2013. It was just one of 12 that crashed in Nevada between 2002 and 2013. Another crashed there last April due to pilot error … and wind.

So maybe it is a good thing that the FAA seems to have missed its Dec. 31, 2015 date for issuing rules for commingling military drones with your Aunt Millie’s flight to Cleveland.


(b) STANDARDS FOR OPERATION AND CERTIFICATION.—Not later than December 31, 2015, the Administrator shall develop and implement operational and certification requirements for the operation of public unmanned aircraft systems in the national airspace system.

“Public” in this context means government/police/military (civil aviation is covered under Section 332). The Air Force and Air National Guard plan to operate a fleet of large UAVs out of 144 or more locations nationwide. Just for reference, the Air Force’s Global Hawk has a wingspan exceeding that of a Boeing 737.

But just so you know it’s safety first in Washington, the FAA announced a record $1.9 million fine in October against aerial photography firm SkyPan for allegedly conducting 65 flights of its small drones around New York City and Chicago without the required authorization, thus “endangering the safety of our airspace.” SkyPan now boasts a Section 333 UAS exemption.

(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)

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