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March 19, 2013

Those magnificent spies in their flying machines

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The Daily Star

---- — There has been much debate recently about targeted killings by drones in our war on terrorism and the collateral deaths of civilians. Those attacks are bad enough, but now the specter of the domestic use of drones against American citizens has surfaced.

Lawmakers primarily have been focused on “the constitutional and statutory authority for targeted killings; the scope of the battlefield and who can be targeted as a combatant; and establishing a transparent legal framework for the use of drones,’’ according to Assistant Majority Leader Sen. Dick Durbin. He has scheduled a hearing on those issues for next month.

It is important to address the matter of domestic attacks, but of more general concern is the problem of using drones to spy on American citizens. 

On Wednesday, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont will have a hearing in Washington titled “The Future of Drones in America: Law Enforcement and Privacy Considerations.” It will focus on the growing concerns about civil rights surrounding the domestic use of drones. 

“Drones have the potential to assist law enforcement and other first responders, but they could also pose a significant threat to the privacy and civil liberties of millions of Americans. This is another example of a fast-changing policy area on which we need to focus to make sure that modern technology is not used to erode Americans’ right to privacy,” Leahy said.

The issue is that drones, or unmanned aircraft, are no longer merely a tool for military attacks and spying abroad. And it’s not only the military’s possible domestic use of drones that has lawmakers and civil rights advocates worrying.

The private sector now is getting into the drone business as companies, including some formerly occupied with radio-operated model planes, acquire the technology to manufacture larger and more-advanced unmanned aircraft.

With more and more of such drones expected in domestic skies in the coming years, the Federal Aviation Administration has been ordered to come up with a procedure by 2015 for integrating them into our airspace. 

Despite the many positive uses for domestic drones, such as aiding first responders, Leahy and others rightly are worried that good intentions could go bad in the wrong hands, whether the government’s or a criminal’s.

“This fast-emerging technology is cheap and could pose a significant threat to the privacy and civil liberties of millions of Americans,’’ Leahy has said.

Old controversy follows new pope

“They’re dancing with the missing

They’re dancing with the dead

They dance with the invisible ones

Their anguish is unsaid

They’re dancing with their fathers

They’re dancing with their sons

They’re dancing with their husbands

They dance alone They dance alone’’

— From “They Dance Alone’’ by Sting (1987)

Silence was not golden in the case of the new pope’s behavior during the eight years when a brutal military regime ruled Argentina. Couldn’t the conclave of cardinals have found someone without a skeleton, or 30,000 of them, in his closet?

It has become clear since Pope Francis was chosen to lead the Roman Catholic Church that his role as archbishop of Buenos Aires during the so-called “Dirty War’’ was not quite what one might expect from a new pope.

Like one Catholic I know asked, “don’t they vet these guys?’’

During the military reign from 1975 to 1983, tens of thousands of alleged opponents to the regime were killed or disappeared, often tortured, drugged and dropped from helicopters. Pope Francis, the former Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio, for years has been dogged by questions about his connections to the military leaders.

One link concerned the military’s abduction of two priests, who the archbishop dismissed from the Jesuit order for ministering to residents of the slums, which were considered hotbeds of leftist opposition. While the new pope previously has denied contacting the military leaders about the priests, his silence in that case and in the thousands of killings stands out.

In fact, the Catholic Church’s behavior during that regressive era in Argentina was so questionable that in 2000 the church officially apologized for its failure to stand up to the military and its murders and abductions.

“We want to confess before God everything we have done badly,” an official statement said in part.

The media have reported that Pope Francis has shown grace and humility since being selected, and we must hope that that humility will help him see beyond his past. Politically, the church should be on the side of progressive governments, not that of brutal dictatorships.

Cary Brunswick, of Oneonta, is a freelance writer and editor. He can be reached at brunswick@earthling.net. The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of The Daily Star and its editorial board.