Experts see promise in domestic drone use, privacy concerns delay rollout

A Yamaha RMAX unmanned helicopter in Japan, where such vehicles have been used increasingly for crop spraying over the past 20 years. Flickr user timtak.

A Yamaha RMAX unmanned helicopter in Japan, where such vehicles have been used increasingly for crop spraying over the past 20 years. Flickr user timtak.

More than a year after President Obama signed legislation that will allow drones to fly over American soil, regulators are far behind schedule and proponents are eager to develop what they say could be vital to American high-tech manufacturing and other industries.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, popularly known as “drones,” have been a controversial topic since they joined the American military arsenal, but a different set of factors is at play on the issue of domestic use. As civil liberties advocates, lawmakers and Federal Aviation Administration officials voice privacy concerns, others are touting the benefits the robotic aircraft could hold for uses in a wide variety of applications such as freight shipping, agriculture and disaster management.

Vince Ambrosia, who helped develop a NASA program that used drones to monitor forest fires over the western United States, said government agencies and private companies alike have seen the value the aircraft could provide. It’s just a matter of developing a logistical, regulatory and ethical framework around their use.

“This is just going to explode,” he said. “This is going to be the next big technology breakthrough. The technology is already in place, it’s just a matter of that framework allowing the use of those platforms.”

Currently, the FAA uses a Certificate of Authorization (COA) system, through which every unmanned aircraft flown over the U.S. must be individually approved for operation (this does not apply to hobbyists using small recreational UAVs). According to a Feb. 15, 2013 report from the Government Accountability Office, the FAA has issued 1,428 Certificates of Authorization since Jan. 2007. However, FAA reports released to the Electronic Frontier Foundation under a Freedom of Information Act request yielded only a few hundred certificates, so a comprehensive list of the various drone authorizations in the U.S. remains elusive.

Chris Mailey, vice president of knowledge resources at Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), a Virginia-based non-profit advocacy group, said the FAA does not yet give Certificates of Authorization for commercial drone use.

“FAA does the COA process,” he said, “and they don’t approve commercial COAs, so either you have to be a government agency or research institution in order to get a COA.”

Last year’s legislation, the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, was designed to change that. The bill, signed into law Feb. 15, 2012, required officials lay out the framework for the integration of drones into the National Airspace System, which regulates all air traffic over the U.S. The first step in this process mandated that the FAA designate six test ranges in American airspace within six months of the bill signing to “test and operate unmanned aircraft systems.” By Sept. 30, 2015, according to the legislation, drones should be fully integrated into American airspace.

But more than a year later, the FAA has not named the test areas. This is due in part to a delay in the process explained by a Nov. 1, 2012 letter from acting FAA administrator Michael Huerta to Congress.

“Our target was to have the six test sites named by the end of 2012,” he wrote. “However, increasing the use of UAS [Unmanned Aerial Systems] in our airspace also raises privacy issues, and these issues will need to be addressed as unmanned aircraft are safely integrated.”

On Feb. 14, 2013, six months after the initial deadline passed, the FAA began soliciting proposals for the test sites.

The FAA release announcing the solicitation did not clarify if the administration had taken any steps to address or study privacy issues since the Nov. 1 letter, but solicited public input on the subject.

“The FAA’s proposed privacy approach emphasizes transparency, public engagement and compliance with existing law,” it reads.

Despite these delays, and having missed their first deadline, FAA officials maintain that they can make the Sept. 2015 deadline.

“The FAA expects to meet all the mandates in the 2012 reauthorization,” spokeswoman Alison Duquette said in an email. She did not address questions about the FAA’s internal deliberations about privacy concerns.

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure is scheduled to meet with the FAA next week about the issue, but the purpose of the meeting is unclear. Committee spokesman Justin Harclerode failed to respond to multiple requests for comment.

Washington isn’t the only place where privacy concerns have kept drones grounded. In Virginia, lawmakers, also citing privacy concerns, passed legislation that will ban drones over the state for two years if Gov. Bob McDonnell signs it into law. Other states are considering similar legislation.

Proponents of the unmanned vehicles, which can range from small, low-flying quadrocopters to jet-powered planes with wingspans up to 116 feet, say the privacy issue is an important one, but shouldn’t keep drones out of American skies forever.

Missy Cummings, an MIT professor working with the Navy on an unmanned rescue helicopter, says privacy issues are nothing new.

“Your neighbor has been able to look into your house with high-powered zoom lenses for a long time,” she said. Unmanned aircraft, while they are equipped with high-powered optics, aren’t able to see any more than a similarly positioned human eye.

“I work a lot with police forces,” Cummings said. “You know whatever we’ve got going on with police helicopters, do you think they’re looking maybe not where they should? Yeah, they are.”

Drones are no different, she said.

While lawmakers and regulators struggle with these issues, a growing number of agencies and businesses are preparing to capitalize on the possibilities afforded by relatively cheap, automated flight.

“The thing about the big brother state is – and that’s the drumbeat I keep trying to get out there – is our focus is on drones as spy vehicles,” Cummings said. “And all this development is going on under the radar, you know drones as cargo planes, drones as rescue helicopters.”

The oft-mentioned fear of drone use over the U.S. is that of the Orwellian surveillance state, but Mailey of AUVSI said the law enforcement market is likely to be a small slice of a much larger pie.

The real money, he said, is in agriculture. Crop dusting and other aerial spray methods are very expensive, he said, largely because manned planes and helicopters must carry a pilot in them. The added weight ups fuel costs, and the cost of hiring a trained pilot makes crop dusting with piloted vehicles expensive and often inefficient, he said.

“The big sign we see is Japan,” he said. “What’s been happening in Japan in the last 20 years has been pretty telling.”

In Japan in 2011, 95 percent of aerial spraying was done with unmanned helicopters, according to Yamaha, the manufacturer of one such vehicle. In 1995, unmanned craft did just 8 percent of Japan’s crop spraying.

Beyond agriculture, Mailey said, energy companies are interested in using drones to monitor oil and gas pipelines that are expensive and difficult to monitor on the ground. Other proposed uses include wildlife monitoring, freight transport and even taco delivery. Essentially, Mailey said, it all boils down to economics.

“In the commercial world,” he said, “return on investment is going to be the big driver [of UAV markets].” If companies can get the same result for a lower cost and less risk, they’ll jump for the opportunity.

Mailey holds out hope that the FAA might meet it’s 2015 deadline, while Cummings says it likely won’t happen, but both agree that once the regulatory issues are figured out, drones will help companies and public agencies bring their costs down and perform new tasks manned aircraft couldn’t.

“By 2020,” Mailey said, “I expect the commercial [UAV] market in the U.S. to be bigger than the defense market.”

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Trucker strike cuts NATO supply lines through Pakistan

Major NATO military bases
Border crossings used in NATO supply lines
Karachi, where NATO supplies are shipped for transport to Afghanistan

Transport lines into Afghanistan, providing NATO troops – including U.S. soldiers – with the supplies they need for day-to-day living, are in jeopardy after the private Pakistani drivers who have been bringing supplies from the Karachi seaport into Afghanistan began a strike.

The strike began in response to the government’s decision to require truckers to go through authorized companies to carry NATO supplies instead of making individual deals with the government-run National Logistics Cell, said Jehanzeb Khan, head of a transport workers union in northwest Pakistan. The companies pay the truckers less, said Khan.

He also claimed the government was not providing adequate protection to the drivers from Taliban attacks, and each truck had to pay corrupt security officials about $165 in bribes to pass through the Khyber tribal area on the way to the border.

These same supply lines have been broken before. In Nov. 2011, the Pakistani government cut off NATO supply after an airstrike-gone-wrong killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. That lasted over six months, during which time the supplies had to be shipped through Russia and Central Asia via a longer route which cost more than $2 billion extra over that period.

International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops are more concentrated in the eastern regions of Afghanistan, making the Pakistani supply lines ideal. But the Pakistani government, in what they say was an effort to reduce theft and disorder in the logistical undertaking of supplying the roughly 100,000 ISAF troops in Afghanistan, mandated the drivers go through officially approved companies in order to be hired for the jobs.

The drivers, however, call the regulation a government attempt to strip them of a decent paycheck. They say they won’t go back to work until the Pakistani government reverses the mandate.

Because the truckers are only loosely organized, not all have stopped working. Though no trucks were reported passing through the more northern Torkham Crossing Wednesday, according to an AP report, there were still supplies going through at Chaman, which is well-positioned to supply the large ISAF airbase just outside Kandahar.

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NatSec News of the Week: Friday, Jan. 4, 2013

I didn’t get a chance to write any longer posts this week, but there were a few interesting stories from the past couple of weeks. Worth reading:

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Less cloak, more dagger for the CIA

The seal on the floor of CIA headquarters. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The seal on the floor of CIA headquarters. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The average CIA case officer at the height of the Cold War traveled alone, opting for inconspicuous movement around their area of operations over the ability to engage in combat. But now, as many CIA operations take place in combat zones – or at least areas where it isn’t a red flag to see a man with an assault rifle on a street corner – case officers are constantly surrounded by an “envelope” of security, provided by a small community of former U.S. Special Operations personell, according to a story in The Washington Post.

The CIA’s Global Response Staff (GRS), the force officially charged with CIA security around the globe, is made up of 250 or more former U.S. Navy SEALs, Delta operators and even former SWAT team members from U.S. police departments. It’s made up of a mix of contractors and CIA staff.

At least half are contractors, who often earn $140,000 or more a year and typically serve 90- or 120-day assignments abroad. Full-time GRS staff officers — those who are permanent CIA employees — earn slightly less but collect benefits and are typically put in supervisory roles.

The high pay of a contractor is countered by the minimal benefits. One GRS contractor, Glen Doherty, was killed in the Sept. 11, 2012 Benghazi attacks and received no benefits because he hadn’t set up a life insurance policy and didn’t have CIA benefits.

When Doherty died, he left debts that included loans on two houses in California, [his sister Kathleen] Quigley said. He had no life insurance. CIA officials told Doherty’s family that they had recommended companies willing to underwrite such policies, but that agency coverage was not available for contractors.

Quigley did not criticize the agency, but added: “It’s so sad for a guy like that to go out and have nothing to show for it, except, frankly, a lot of debt.”

The Post report comes amid growing concerns about the CIA’s drone program and the intelligence agency’s increasing role as a paramilitary force. The drone program, made up of between 30 and 35 armed drones, may expand by as many as 10 drones if the Obama administration approves an October request by then-CIA Director David Petraeus.

The cost of devoting increasing amounts of the CIA’s finite resources to lethality – a GRS contractor might make about $140,000 a year, which puts the total cost of the force into the tens of millions, and the drone program likely costs much more – is that those funds cannot be used for the CIA’s stated purpose: intelligence gathering.

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Washington Post: U.S. Special Forces setting up for the long haul, in D.C. and abroad

A three-part series in the Washington Post this week shed light on the U.S. counterterrorism apparatus as it is more than a decade after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the Bush administration and Congress took a number of actions to counter the forces that came to bear that day.

With the two resulting ground wars are drawing to a close – U.S. troops have been out of Iraq for 10 months and are slowly leaving Afghanistan – the government is establishing a counterterrorism system for the next decade.

With public opinion tilted against these more traditional wars and the limited efficacy of traditional forces against an enemy whose ideals can’t be drawn onto a map, a precision approach makes a lot of sense for the U.S. Covert operations by definition don’t make headlines as much as thousands of soldiers marching on a capital city, and drone strikes are both low-risk and deniable.

So American national security considerations are woven neatly into a “disposition matrix,” which lists every individual on an American kill list and magically generating every conceivable kill scenario for the individual, based on current intelligence and troop locations.

The matrix contains the names of terrorism suspects arrayed against an accounting of the resources being marshaled to track them down, including sealed indictments and clandestine operations. U.S. officials said the database is designed to go beyond existing kill lists, mapping plans for the “disposition” of suspects beyond the reach of American drones.

Although the matrix is a work in progress, the effort to create it reflects a reality setting in among the nation’s counterterrorism ranks: The United States’ conventional wars are winding down, but the government expects to continue adding names to kill or capture lists for years.

Currently, the kingpin of American counterterrorism is an unelected official appointed without congressional confirmation: John O. Brennan.

What was once a disparate collection of tactics — drone strikes by the CIA and the military, overhead surveillance, deployment of small Special Forces ground units at far-flung bases, and distribution of military and economic aid to threatened governments — has become a White House-centered strategy with Brennan at its core.

The Post story details Brennan’s loosely defined job description and his close relationship to President Barack Obama. But despite the synergy within the current administration, officials are in the process of setting up a procedural framework that will outlast them using tools like the disposition matrix and consistent procedures.

“This needs to be sustainable,” one senior administration official said, “and we need to think of it in ways that contemplate other people sitting in all the chairs around the table.”
One part of the new set up is establishing a foothold in areas where al-Qaeda operates. With troops leaving Afghanistan and a very limited presence in Iraq, the U.S. turned to the tiny nation of Djibouti as a center of operations for its new breed of warfare.
At camp Lemonnier on the outskirts of Djibouti City, the capital city of the small, costal North African nation that borders Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea, the buzz of a Predator drone is a familiar sound. As part of an expansion of its duties, the base received eight of the drones in 2011. It has since become a launch point for drone activity over Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere.

The number of takeoffs and landings each month has more than doubled, reaching a peak of 1,666 in July compared with a monthly average of 768 two years ago, according to air-traffic statistics disclosed in Defense Department contracting documents.

 The human counterpart to the drone mission in Djibouti is the roughly 300 special operators who occupy the base alongside regular troops.

About 300 Special Operations personnel plan raids and coordinate drone flights from inside a high-security compound at Lemonnier that is dotted with satellite dishes and ringed by concertina wire. Most of the commandos work incognito, concealing their names even from conventional troops on the base.
According to the Post, there are plans to expand the special operations presence at the base to upwards of 1,000 in the future, evidence of the shift in philosophy from overt “nation building” missions overseas to black ops smash-and-grabs reminiscent of the May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Questions remain about this new, more covert approach to national security. While the implications of long-term occupation are well-kn0wn both for native populations and the occupying force, the lack of clarity and constant fear that comes with living within a few hundred miles of a drone base could prove destructive to U.S. interests abroad. A recent report – Living Under Drones – by teams at New York University and Stanford outlined the implications of the drone war on native populations.
In The Post:

Side effects are more difficult to measure — including the extent to which strikes breed more enemies of the United States — but could be more consequential if the campaign continues for 10 more years.

“We are looking at something that is potentially indefinite,” Pillar said. “We have to pay particular attention, maybe more than we collectively have so far, to the longer-term pros and cons to the methods we use.”

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Foreign policy debate: Candidates line up on big policy points

While it was full of zingers from both sides, the Oct. 22 presidential debate on foreign policy did a good job of clarifying some of the candidates’ positions on foreign policy issues. Here’s the rundown (all debate quotes come from The New York Times’ full transcript of the debate):

  • Candidates perfectly aligned on drone use

Moderator Bob Scheiffer threw in the obligatory question about drone use – it seemed as though he had forgotten to write one and then saw one of the thousands of tweets coming in demanding one after the debate hit the one hour mark, so came up with something off the cuff. Here is the full exchange on drones:

MR. SCHIEFFER: Let me ask you, Governor, because we know President Obama’s position on this, what is — what is your position on the use of drones?

MR. ROMNEY: Well, I believe that we should use any and all means necessary to take out people who pose a threat to us and our friends around the world. And it’s widely reported that drones are being used in drone strikes, and I support that entirely and feel the president was right to up the usage of that technology and believe that we should continue to use it to continue to go after the people who represent a threat to this nation and to our friends.

Let me also note that, as I said earlier, we’re going to have to do more than just going after leaders and — and killing bad guys, important as that is. We’re also going to have to have a far more effective and comprehensive strategy to help move the world away from terror and Islamic extremism.

We haven’t done that yet. We talk a lot about these things, but you look at the — the record. You look at the record of the last four years and say, is Iran closer to a bomb? Yes. Is the Middle East in tumult? Yes. Is — is al-Qaida on the run, on its heels? No. Is — are Israel and the Palestinians closer to — to reaching a peace agreement? No, they haven’t had talks in two years. We have not seen the progress we need to have, and I’m convinced that with strong leadership and an effort to build a strategy based upon helping these nations reject extremism, we can see the kind of peace and prosperity the world demands.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, keep in mind our strategy wasn’t just going after bin Laden. We’ve created partnerships throughout the region to deal with extremism — in Somalia, in Yemen, in Pakistan. And what we’ve also done is engage these governments in the kind of reforms that are actually going to make a difference in people’s lives day to day, to make sure that their government aren’t corrupt, to make sure that they are treating women with the kind of respect and dignity that every nation that succeeds has shown, and to make sure that they’ve got a free market system that works.

So across the board, we are engaging them in building capacity in these countries and we have stood on the side of democracy. One thing I think Americans should be proud of — when Tunisians began to protest, this nation, me, my administration stood with them earlier than just about any other country. In Egypt we stood on the side of democracy. In Libya we stood on the side of the people. And as a consequence there is no doubt that attitudes about Americans have changed.

But there are always going to be elements in these countries that potentially threaten the United States.

And we want to shrink those groups and those networks, and we can do that, but we’re always also going to have to maintain vigilance when it comes to terrorist activities. The truth, though, is that al-Qaida is much weaker than it was when I came into office, and they don’t have the same capacities to attack the U.S. homeland and our allies as they did four years ago.

While neither candidate seems to note the irony of seeking to reduce Islamic extremism while simultaneously establishing a canopy of lethal robots over a good chunk of the Middle East, that seems to be the policy America will pursue for the next four years, regardless of the outcome of the next election.

  • Iran’s a threat. We should negotiate.

On Iran, Obama went first. After saying that he would support Israel if they were attacked by Iran, he articulated his administration’s approach:

But to the issue of Iran, as long as I’m president of the United States, Iran will not get a nuclear weapon.

I’ve made that clear when I came into office. We then organized the strongest coalition and the strongest sanctions against Iran in history, and it is crippling their economy. Their currency has dropped 80 percent. Their oil production has plunged to the lowest level since they were fighting a war with Iraq 20 years ago. So their economy is in a shambles.

And the reason we did this is because a nuclear Iran is a threat to our national security and it’s threat to Israel’s national security. We cannot afford to have a nuclear arms race in the most volatile region of the world. Iran’s a state sponsor of terrorism, and for them to be able to provide nuclear technology to nonstate actors — that’s unacceptable. And they have said that they want to see Israel wiped off the map.

So the work that we’ve done with respect to sanctions now offers Iran a choice. They can take the diplomatic route and end their nuclear program or they will have to face a united world and a United States president, me, who said we’re not going to take any options off the table.

Nothing off the table means the possibility of a military solution to the Iranian problem.

Now Romney:

Well, first of all, I — I want to underscore the — the same point the president made, which is that if I’m president of the United States, when I’m president of the United States, we will stand with Israel. And — and if Israel is attacked, we have their back, not just diplomatically, not just culturally, but militarily. That’s number one.

Number two, with regards to — to Iran and the threat of Iran, there’s no question but that a nuclear Iran, a nuclear-capable Iran, is unacceptable to America.

It presents a threat not only to our friends, but ultimately a threat to us to have Iran have nuclear material, nuclear weapons that could be used against us or used to be threatening to us.

It’s also essential for us to understand what our mission is in Iran, and that is to dissuade Iran from having a nuclear weapon through peaceful and diplomatic means. And crippling sanctions are something I’d called for five years ago when I was in Israel speaking at the Herzliya Conference. I laid out seven steps.

Crippling sanctions were number one. And they do work. You’re seeing it right now in the economy. It’s absolutely the right thing to do to have crippling sanctions. I’d have put them in place earlier, but it’s good that we have them.

Number two, something I would add today is I would tighten those sanctions. I would say that ships that carry Iranian oil can’t come into our ports. I imagine the EU would agree with us as well. Not only ships couldn’t, I’d say companies that are moving their oil can’t, people who are trading in their oil can’t. I would tighten those sanctions further.

Secondly, I’d take on diplomatic isolation efforts. I’d make sure that Ahmadinejad is indicted under the Genocide Convention. His words amount to genocide incitation. I would indict him for it. I would also make sure that their diplomats are treated like the pariah they are around the world, the same way we treated the apartheid diplomats of South Africa.

We need to increase pressure time and time again on Iran because anything other than a — a — a solution to this which says — which stops this nuclear folly of theirs is unacceptable to America. And of course, a military action is the last resort. It is something one would only, only consider if all of the other avenues had been — had been tried to their full extent.

Both candidates want to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons through peaceful means, but both are willing to follow their diplomacy with military force if necessary.

Can a U.S. President indict a foreign leader under the Genocide Convention, as Romney said, for what might be considered – in the U.S. – free speech? Politico’s Byron Tau looked into it.

In essence, Ahmadinejad’s comments would likely be protected by the first amendment if prosecuted in the U.S. Romney, however, said that he would have the Iranian leader indicted under an international, United Nations convention. That being the case, such a trial would likely occur in international courts which are generally less protective of free speech.

“That said, some of the calls for genocide of the Jewish people, and wiping Israel off the map may be actionable, as true threats.  It is doubtful that this would be prosecuted in the U.S., but international courts may view the rhetoric differently,” he [First Amendment attorney Lawrence Walters] said.

If the candidates have a difference on Iran, it is that Romney’s approach to diplomacy is slightly more hard-nosed. Both candidates have pledged military action, if necessary, to prevent Iran from building a nuclear arsenal.

  • Syria solution: Hold a meeting

Both candidates have strongly condemned the violence of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, but neither is willing to devote military troops to removing the dictator from power.

Here’s Obama:

What we’ve done is organize the international community, saying Assad has to go. We’ve mobilized sanctions against that government. We have made sure that they are isolated. We have provided humanitarian assistance, and we are helping the opposition organize, and we’re particularly interested in making sure that we’re mobilizing the moderate forces inside of Syria. But ultimately, Syrians are going to have to determine their own future.

Romney goes out of his way with his answer to talk about the tragic results of the Syrian conflict so far and then mention the strategic importance, especially relating to Iran, of Syria in the overall picture of the Middle East. Then he agrees with Obama: No military action.

Well, let’s step back and talk about what’s happening in Syria and how important it is. First of all, 30,000 people being killed by their government is a humanitarian disaster.

Secondly, Syria’s an opportunity for us because Syria plays an important role in the Middle East, particularly right now. Syria is Iran’s only ally in the Arab world. It’s their route to the sea. It’s the route for them to arm Hezbollah in Lebanon, which threatens, of course, our ally Israel. And so seeing Syria remove Assad is a very high priority for us. Number two, seeing a — a replacement government being responsible people is critical for us. And finally, we don’t want to have military involvement there. We don’t want to get drawn into a military conflict.

And so the right course for us is working through our partners and with our own resources to identify responsible parties within Syria, organize them, bring them together in a — in a form of — of — if not government, a form of — of council that can take the lead in Syria, and then make sure they have the arms necessary to defend themselves.

Romney’s premise that Syria is Iran’s only route to the sea was a bit troubling, given a quick look at a map shows that Iran has coastline on two seas, and does not border Syria.

  • Romney likes democracy, just not the leaders it brings

Romney had a strong opening, summarizing what he likes in the Middle East and highlighting Iran as his big talking point for the evening. He also took a swipe at Mohamed Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

With the Arab Spring came a great deal of hope that there would be a change towards more moderation and opportunity for greater participation on the part of women and — and public life and in economic life in the Middle East. But instead we’ve seen in nation after nation a number of disturbing events. Of course, we see in Syria 30,000 civilians having been killed by the military there. We see in — in — in Libya an attack apparently by — well, I think we know now by terrorists of some kind against — against our people there, four people dead. Our hearts and minds go to them. Mali has been taken over, the northern part of Mali, by al-Qaida-type individuals. We have in — in Egypt a Muslim Brotherhood president.

Later, Romney:

So across the board, we are engaging them in building capacity in these countries and we have stood on the side of democracy. One thing I think Americans should be proud of — when Tunisians began to protest, this nation, me, my administration stood with them earlier than just about any other country. In Egypt we stood on the side of democracy. In Libya we stood on the side of the people. And as a consequence there is no doubt that attitudes about Americans have changed.

So Romney has, in less than an hour, listed the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership in Egypt as a “disturbing event,” despite the fact that Morsy was democratically elected, which Romney thinks “Americans should be proud of.”

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Three questions a sensible opponent would raise about Obama’s foreign policy

As President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are getting ready to debate on foreign policy. I suspect far too much time will be spent on both sides bickering over whether or not Obama’s policy was too wussy in Libya and whether the White House was trying to pull the wool over America’s eyes about intelligence suggesting the consulate attacks were caused by an organized effort or a spontaneous mob.

However, a sensible opponent to Obama and his policies abroad might touch on another, broader, set of issues. To name a few…

Among progressives and civil-liberties voters, Obama’s initial decision to shelve the Guantanamo issue represented a betrayal of the highest order. Dreaming publicly now about closing Gitmo after he didn’t take the opportunity to do so in the first two years of his term — when Democrats still controlled both houses of Congress — rips open an old wound that only depresses base enthusiasm rather than energize it.

Neither is it clear that the proposal will get much traction in the broader electorate. Americans supportkeeping the prison open for business at a rate of 70 percent.

What other foreign policy issues would you like to see Obama give answers on? Let us know in the comments.

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First World Problems: Haiti Edition

Last year, I wrote about the trend of saying “first world problems,” and how it’s offensive to some people. The argument, while it’s almost too politically correct, is a good one. Here is a string of tweets (compiled by Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic) by novelist Teju Cole articulating his issue with the phrase.

I don’t like this expression “First World problems.” It is false and it is condescending. Yes, Nigerians struggle with floods or infant mortality. But these same Nigerians also deal with mundane and seemingly luxurious hassles. Connectivity issues on your BlackBerry, cost of car repair, how to sync your iPad, what brand of noodles to buy: Third World problems. All the silly stuff of life doesn’t disappear just because you’re black and live in a poorer country. People in the richer nations need a more robust sense of the lives being lived in the darker nations. Here’s a First World problem: the inability to see that others are as fully complex and as keen on technology and pleasure as you are.

One event that illustrated the gap between the Africa of conjecture and the real Africa was the BlackBerry outage of a few weeks ago. Who would have thought Research In Motion’s technical issues would cause so much annoyance and inconvenience in a place like Lagos? But of course it did, because people don’t wake up with “poor African” pasted on their foreheads. They live as citizens of the modern world. None of this is to deny the existence of social stratification and elite structures here. There are lifestyles of the rich and famous, sure. But the interesting thing about modern technology is how socially mobile it is–quite literally. Everyone in Lagos has a phone.

And while Cole has a lot of good points here, a new ad by waterislife.com features impoverished Haitians reading some choice #FirstWorldProblems tweets. While they might have to endure the silly stuff too, the ad provides a stark contrast to Cole’s complaints and makes anyone using the phrase look like an ass for entirely different reasons.

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The Air Force has an intelligence problem: Too much of it

As the canopy of unmanned drones over the Middle East and elsewhere grows larger and more complex, the military faces an interesting problem. Before, if they sent a plane over enemy airspace to take pictures, there was a pilot in it. He was connected to that data, and knew what he saw. But when we’ve got hundreds of cameras in the sky without a corresponding human, we run into the problem. We have the data, but we can’t process it fast enough. Check this out, from The Economist:

During 2009, American drone aircraft flying over Iraq and Afghanistan sent back around 24 years’ worth of video footage. New models being deployed this year will produce ten times as many data streams as their predecessors, and those in 2011 will produce 30 times as many.

The military can’t keep up, so they’re looking elsewhere for solutions. Their most recent stop: NASCAR. That’s right, AOL Defense says the guys who record thousands of people in multiple countries with flying unmanned vehicles are asking the guys who record people driving in circles for help.

Sports television has pioneered many of the techniques for marking and finding data in a video. For each NASCAR race they deploy a team of six or more data taggers, whose job is to watch the event and –with the help of directors — spot what’s interesting and immediately assign it a data tag. That lets directors quickly search through the video, pull the exciting crash, for example, pull it and do an instant replay or build a highlights video.

Real-time data tagging is a key way to get it done, but the Air Force doesn’t have six people for every one drone in the sky, and that’s what it would take. The technique could be integrated with others to provide a solution to getting through all this data. Other tips might come from Gordon Bell, the Microsoft researcher who is conducting an experiment on himself. Using the best technology available, Bell is recording every aspect of his life in real time.

Think about every moment of your day. Every text message, every tweet, email, phone conversation, real conversation, meeting, credit card transaction, everything. All of those are tangible data points that make up your life, and Bell is collecting his. Wired did a short profile on the project in 2009.

This trove includes Web sites he’s visited (221,173), photos taken (56,282), emails sent and received (156,041), docs written and read (18,883), phone conversations had (2,000), photos snapped by the SenseCam hanging around his neck (66,000), songs listened to (7,139), and videos taken by him (2,164). To collect all this information, he uses a staggering assortment of hardware: desktop scanner, digicam, heart rate monitor, voice recorder, GPS logger, pedometer, smartphone, e-reader.

Well according to The Guardian, Bell has the same data problem the Air Force does.

Dr Bell has now stored so much of his life on computer that he is in danger of forgetting how to remember. “I look at it as a surrogate memory,” he says. If he wants to recall something, he switches on and picks his way through days and months of information until he finds what he is after. It was all dreamt up at Microsoft’s Bay Area Research Centre in San Francisco, where Dr Bell works.

With video data, which isn’t easily searchable and is time-consuming to manually review, the problem is even worse.

 

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Cloudy day in China? Just shoot them down.

A few days ago, reading a story in The Telegraph about the once-in-a-decade transfer of power in China, I saw a paragraph near the bottom of the piece that blew my mind.

Finally, China’s vaunted weather control technology is preparing for action to guarantee that the Congress’ 2,270 delegates enjoy nothing but cerulean skies.

Oh, no big deal, just put the fact that CHINA CAN CONTROL THE WEATHER in the second-to-last graf. What? What is this madness? China has elevated itself to God status and The Telegraph mentioned it offhand.

Well it turns out this really isn’t news. A quick search yielded a 2007 Asia Times story about China’s weather control program. The technology is run by Weather Modification Department, which at the time had a budget between $60 and $90 million. The tech isn’t actually as awesome as I thought (though I admit I was expecting something on the scale of Tony Stark’s arc reactor). Essentially, the Chinese have repurposed anti-aircraft weapons to literally shoot down clouds.

Instead, they grab rocket launchers and a 37-millimeter anti-aircraft gun and begin shooting into the sky. What they launch are not bullets or missiles but chemical pellets. Their targets are not enemy aggressors but wisps of passing cloud that they aim to “seed” with silver-iodide particles around which moisture can then collect and become heavy enough to fall.

None of this is all that new, however. The Chinese government has been looking into the issue since the 1950s, according to the Asia Times story. As if that’s not strange enough, the United States were among the pioneers of the weather-control research and in the 1970s entered into a treaty in the 1970s forbidding the use of weather control in warfare.

The Chinese used the technology most famously during the 2008 Beijing Olympics with the hopes of a rain-free opening ceremony. The Chinese government predicted the Aug. 8, 2008 event had a 50 percent chance of drizzle, but there were no signs of rain.

It looks as though the Chinese may have found the silver bullet.

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