President Obama says the US government doesn’t spy on ordinary Americans with aerial drones or any other technology.
But in the tiny Colorado prairie town of Deer Trail (pop. 500), residents aren’t taking the most powerful man on earth at his word. Instead, they’ve invented a new pastime: drone hunting. And there’s lots of interest. Over 1,000 people have already applied for the novelty license, though the town won’t actually vote on the proposal until Oct. 8.
It’s a half-serious initiative intended as a symbolic protest against what many in the town, and around the country, see as an emerging and increasingly sinister American surveillance state. At the very least, the $25 licenses could raise some revenue for Deer Trail, a rickety plains outpost in a state being considered by the Obama administration for experimental use of civilian drones.
The Federal Aviation Administration issued a stern warning that it’s against federal law to shoot down unmanned drones. "Shooting at an unmanned aircraft could result in criminal or civil liability,” the agency warned this week.
Concern about excessive domestic spying is politically ubiquitous. But the prospect of Western states being used to experiment with domestic drones by everyone from police to ranchers hit particularly hard in rural America. Those are the kinds of places where people proudly wear T-shirts that proclaim “I’m a right wing extremist” – a tongue-in-cheek reference to something a Justice Department report warned about several years ago.
The American West, too, is where the “black helicopter” conspiracy theories caught fire in the 1990s.
In its second term, the Obama administration has faced allegations ranging from political targeting by the IRS to revelations that the National Security Agency is trolling millions of phone calls in search of suspicious “pairings” of phone numbers that could hint at terrorist connections.
While attitudes have become more critical in the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks about the NSA spying program, a majority of Americans still, by a slim margin, support such initiatives, and believe they contribute to national security.
But Republicans, especially, have become far more suspicious of such programs since 2006, when only 26 percent of GOP voters said the press should be reporting on covert surveillance programs; today 43 percent of Republicans think the press should report on secret counter-terror programs.
But while there are legitimate domestic terrorism threats in the US, the question of whom the federal spy complex may target for surveillance is what concerns most critics, giving rise to a new sort of surveillance anxiety, even amid assurances from Obama that, “We don’t have a domestic spying program.”
The problem for many Americans, of course, is trusting the government when it says it can responsibly peer at phone records and Internet traffic while not stepping on the American constitutional guarantee against warrantless searches.
“If spying is narrowly construed to mean, say, warrantless wiretaps on Americans, then it's apparently true that there's no domestic spying program,” David Graham wrote in the Atlantic. “But it's also not really true, and it suggests a sort of smirking contempt on the president's part for his interlocutors, and citizens.”
That suspicion has certainly found an outlet on the Colorado prairie.
Kim Oldfield, the town clerk in Deer Trail, has just started throwing drone-hunting application envelopes in a pile after she received 983 checks worth $19,000. The local who came up with the idea, Phillip Steel, has been privately selling novelty licenses, the proceeds from which he says he’s sharing with the town.
Steel told the Associated Press he dreamed up the drone hunter idea after reading newspaper accounts of domestic spying efforts originating with the National Security Agency.
"Do we really want to become a surveillance society? That's what I find really repugnant," Steel told the AP.