Obama's Drones

Top drone supporter, beneficiary now looks to uses closer to home

Thursday, August 1st, 2013 

A version of this story is being co-published by BBC News.

When more than half of the U.S. troops return from Afghanistan by late February 2014, many of the drones will come home, too. If Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon has his way, they will soon populate the skies over this country.

McKeon, a California Republican, is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and co-chair of a legislative group he founded, the Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus, which supports expansion of the unmanned aerial vehicles industry. The efforts of McKeon and other congressmen have led to the government’s heavy investment in research and development of drones and has helped to ensure a prominent role for them in national security.

Drones now collect intelligence and are used to track down known terrorists and terror suspects around the world. U.S. government officials have overseen more than 360 drone strikes in Pakistan, according to researchers at the Washington-based New America Foundation. The researchers estimate that the strikes have killed between 1,580 and 2,730 civilians and between 190 and 330 militants. (The Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London estimates even higher casualties.)

Washington officials say that the strikes have killed so many terrorists that they now are scaling back on the number of attacks. The number of drone strikes has gone down from more than 120 in Pakistan in 2010, for example, to 48 in 2012 to 12 so far this year.

“There have been very few drone strikes in this last year,” Secretary of State John Kerry said during a question-and-answer session on the BBC’s “Hardtalk” in May. “Why? Because we have been so successful at rooting out al-Qaida in Pakistan.”

The strikes are deeply unpopular in South Asia and in other parts of the world. The Taliban killed 10 foreign mountaineers in Pakistan in June — in retaliation, the Taliban said, for the U.S. drone strikes.

Many of the drones that were used in Pakistan, along with those sent to Afghanistan, will soon have a permanent home here in the U.S.

Drones on the Hill

While McKeon’s influence plays out in Congress, the drone policy is being challenged:

  • Harold Koh, a former State Department legal adviser, recently criticized the Obama administration, in a speech at Oxford Union, for a lack of transparency on drone warfare. While working for the State Department as its legal adviser, Koh helped to write and articulate the policy on drones. (The Workshop's previous story on Koh is here.)
  • Oral arguments will begin July 19 in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union challenging the government’s killing of three U.S. citizens overseas.

And the Justice Department’s document outlining the legal justification for using drones on potential enemies overseas was made available earlier this year, when NBC News reported on the issue.

The success of drones

The story of how drones remain a robust niche in the defense industry is rooted in Washington. Indeed, the rise of the drone — the most famous is known as the Predator, which is made by General Atomics — can be traced at least in part to McKeon, “the defense sector’s top congressional ally,” according to Defense News.

Military officers on Capitol Hill and executives in the aerospace industry have recognized McKeon’s support. Of the 60 members of Congress who belong to the Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus, he has received the most contributions — $833,650 — from companies that make unmanned aerial systems, according to a report by Hearst Newspapers and the Center for Responsive Politics.

He is a case study in how one member of Congress can work within the system and have an impact on policy — as well as increase profits for Boeing, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin, all of which make drones in his district —while operating within ethical boundaries created by Congress. McKeon, who has not been accused of any crimes or charged with any ethical violations, refused repeated requests for interviews for this article.

Years ago, Americans were shocked at the way lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Congressmen Randy (“Duke”) Cunningham worked the system in Washington. Abramoff was convicted of bilking Indian tribes, and Cunningham pleaded guilty to accepting $2 million in bribes from military contractors. They were both imprisoned, and afterward members of Congress entered a period of self-reflection and re-examined their ethical rules.

Today, however, the system remains much the same. Lobbyists promote clients, including the makers of drones, and defense contractors give money to congressmen, who in turn write legislation that regulates their industry.

Within this world of money and politics, McKeon stands out. Not only is he the top recipient of contributions from manufacturers of unmanned aerial vehicles, but he is also Capitol Hill’s most vocal supporter of the industry and has close ties with lobbyists and contractors.

His work has a personal dimension, too. When his wife, Patricia, ran for unsuccessfully for state assembly in California in 2012, her campaign received thousands of dollars from Boeing, Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics. McKeon also hired her as his campaign treasurer. Researchers at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington describe him as one of the “most corrupt” members of Congress because the campaign paid his wife a salary — $238,438 over the 2008 and 2010 campaign cycles.

He also once received a cut-rate VIP Countrywide Financial loan and was included in a congressional report about Countrywide’s attempt to influence members of Congress. He has not been accused of wrongdoing.

Defender of the drones

Influentials and drones

Drones remain a high priority for Congress and for McKeon in particular — a case study in how one member can work within the system and influence policy. The actions of others, including Abramoff and Cunningham, led to changes in ethics policies.


Photo resources: U.S. House of Representatives; Northrup Grumman; Epic.org; POGO.org; Jack Abramoff


Graphic by Cristina Keane, Haoyun Su,

Investigative Reporting Workshop

On a weekday morning in February, McKeon walked down a marbled hallway of the Rayburn House Office Building on his way to a hearing on the defense budget and made a small bow toward several uniformed men standing near doorway. He turned toward one of the men and shook his hand.

The general seemed happy to see him, and the other officers also smiled at McKeon warmly. The cordial relations between McKeon and the military officers were hardly surprising, given the way that McKeon has courted the general and others in the military over the years. “Gentlemen, you have no stronger advocate than the members of this committee,” he said during the hearing.

They had convened to talk about on cuts in the federal budget that were part of the process known as sequestration. The cuts would be administered across the board, evenly slicing into the federal budget.

McKeon said he was distressed about the cuts — which, he said, would “cripple our military forces.” Yet many on Capitol Hill believe that he has exaggerated the effect that the budget cuts will have on the military.

And most budgetary experts, regardless of how they view McKeon, say that one part of the defense industry remains relatively unscathed: the drone business.

To be sure, the drone program will be cut, at least somewhat. Pentagon budget planners sent a report to Congress in April that stated they would reduce their investment in drones.

In 2013, the Pentagon invested in 24 MQ-9 Reapers, for example, but will reduce that number to 12 this fiscal year.

Yet as Gordon Adams, a former legislative director who oversaw defense spending at the Office of Management and Budget in the Clinton administration, says, drones will remain “a high priority” for the Pentagon.

And Daniel Solon wrote in The International Herald Tribune in June, “Drone builders are thriving.”

Defense Department officials invested almost $4 billion in unmanned aircraft in the past fiscal year, according to the Associated Press. The figure represents a dramatic increase in support for drones since the terrorist attacks of 2001; a year earlier, in 2000, defense officials spent $284 million on drones.

In a report published earlier this year, analysts with the Teal Group Corporation, a Fairfax, Va., firm, said the unmanned aerial systems industry could grow to $89.1 billion over the next decade.

The numbers are impressive. Not surprisingly, McKeon has expressed enthusiasm about the future of drones. “The applications of unmanned systems are virtually limitless,” he said in a news release in last fall.

Look up

Drones are now flying around the Washington area as part of a military training program. Matt Scassero, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Unmanned Aerial Systems Coalition, has been lobbying for Maryland and Virginia to become test sites for drones in the United States, exploring how drones of various sizes could be used. Scassero, who used to work as a vice commander of the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division in Maryland, has seen drones up close. Several weeks ago, he watched one fly above the Patuxent River — “quietly,” he said.

McKeon has been working on Capitol Hill to expand the territory for drones beyond military bases. He said police officers should be able to use drones in this country to chase down criminals. “Our neighborhoods deserve safer streets,” he said in a statement for the press in April 2011, “and these systems can help provide that.”

In the past, border-protection officials have talked about putting weapons on Predator drones in the U.S., as government documents show.

The government released the documents, along with three years of drone flight logs, in early July in response to a Freedom of Information lawsuit filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The news caused a furor among activists and civil libertarians, and government officials quickly announced that at this point they have no plans to arm the drones.

Equally important, however, the documents show that Predator drones are used frequently — and to an extent that had not been widely known — in the United States.

McKeon helped push through a law, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Modernization and Reform Act, in February 2012, which set policies for drones to fly in the United States by 2015.

There is wide interest in civilian use of drone technology. In recent months, Hollywood has started to lobby to expand the use of drones in this country, says Howard Gantman, spokesman for the Motion Picture Association of America.

In other countries, drones have already been used in the movies. Filmmakers used them for the James Bond movie "Skyfall," starring Daniel Craig, for example, and also for "The Smurfs 2" — and hope to expand their role. Farmers are interested in drones, too, because the remotely piloted vehicles can be used to look at storms and other factors that might affect their crops. Students in a drone journalism program at the University of Nebraska are studying how drones can be used in reporting, including the ethical considerations involved.

The FAA act includes a deadline later this month for the development of rules on drone integration, which would help address questions that local authorities, citizens and others have about the drones flying around the United States.

Not everybody is happy about these developments. Earlier this year, residents of Charlottesville, Va., tried to restrict the use of drones in their city. Members of the city council passed a resolution calling on state and national lawmakers to ban the use of surveillance drones in the city for two years. In addition, the Virginia state legislature passed its own version of the legislation, which is even broader than the one supported by the Charlottesville city council members. In late March, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell signed a two-year moratorium on drone use in the state, containing exemptions for specified police use, educational and research endeavors.

Virginia was the first state to enact a drone ban; Idaho and Florida have since followed suit. State legislatures in Tennessee and Montana have passed anti-drone legislation, which await gubernatorial action. As of May 6, there were 85 bills pending in 39 state legislatures that were aimed at banning or limiting domestic drone use.

Kept under wraps

Some of the lawmakers in Virginia were worried that drones could be used to spy on people. Indeed, drone sensors “can scoop up quite a lot of information,” according to experts at the Brookings Institution. Other concerns have been raised by engineers who say that the new models of drones, while sleeker than the older ones, are nevertheless plagued with design flaws.

And budgetary experts say that drones cost too much, at least compared with other tools that law enforcement officials might use in investigations. One Reaper, for example, costs $120.8 million, according to a Time magazine blog, Battleland.

Equally important, say defense industry experts, McKeon and others on Capitol Hill are acting as boosters of the drone industry — rather than as critical observers of the industry who want to keep costs down for taxpayers.

What propelled him

When McKeon was a child in California, his parents sold meat out of a secondhand fish truck. Later they opened a store, Howard and Phil's Western Wear, and he worked for the family business. He did not go to college until he was in his 40s, when he majored in animal husbandry at Brigham Young University.

From his early days on the Hill, he was recognized as someone who works hard for business owners, whether big- or small-time, and Rep. Jane Harman introduced him at an event in 1993, his first year on the Hill, as “someone who helps me save the aerospace industry in California.”

Over the years, McKeon has made visits to Northrop Grumman’s unmanned systems facility in Palmdale, Calif., and to other drone manufacturers in his district. In 2001, several weeks before the terrorist attacks, he made the rounds at a trade fair near the U.S. Capitol. That day, he admired an unmanned vehicle on display, the Pegasus, which was made by Northrop Grumman.

“I’m excited about Pegasus for two reasons,” he told Helicopter News. “First, for what it can do for the security of our country, and second, for its cost-effectiveness.”

After the terrorist attacks, government officials began to look more closely at the Pegasus and other unmanned vehicles as a way to track down terrorists. In turn, defense contractors began to cultivate relationships with members of Congress and began to educate them about their unmanned vehicles.

An executive with a company called Textron, which makes unmanned systems, started giving money to McKeon in 2001, and the following year McKeon began asking the heads of the military services to issue a report about their plans for unmanned aerial vehicles.

He continued over the next decade to push for federal money for drones and traveled to Turkey, Kuwait,   Romania and elsewhere, speaking with officials about the unmanned aircraft.

“The staunchest advocate for military power,” is how Thomas Donnelly, co-director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, described McKeon, adding that he has a “gentlemanly” manner: “Not the kind of guy you’d see on cable news, throwing spitballs at the opposition.”

“He’s honest, and even if you disagree with him politically, you can sympathize with his position,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “Very affable and well-respected.”

But Winslow T. Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight, counters that McKeon’s judgment is colored by a lack of real knowledge: “He reads off the material his staff has prepared,” said Wheeler. “He has been spectacularly clueless in looking seriously at drones in terms of what they actually cost and what they actually can do.”

The iron triangle

Critics also point out that drones are accident-prone, a growing problem at civilian airports around the world. Two crashes occurred in December 2012, one in Nevada and other in Afghanistan. A hobbyist’s drone got blown onto a rooftop in the Adams Morgan neighborhood in Washington in September 2012. The faulty navigation may seem comical, up to a point, but a “lost link,” which means a wayward drone, could pose a hazard at American airports since, as a September 2012 Government Accountability Office report says, “It is important that air traffic controllers know where and how all aircraft are operating.”

The spike in drones over the past few years can be attributed to McKeon, but perhaps more important, to “the iron triangle” says American University’s Gordon Adams, author of “The Politics of Defense Contracting.” Political scientists say the this congruence of bureaucrats, congressmen and lobbyists is sometimes indifferent to the needs of the public.

Lobbying is part of the fabric of Washington life, however, and defense contractors have invested heavily in the endeavor.

Top drone manufacturers
invest in lobbying

Northrop Grumman spent more than $162 million lobbying government officials from 2001-2012.

Boeing, Honeywell, Textron and BAE also invested heavily during that same period


Research: Rachael Marcus and Tara McKelvey,

Investigative Reporting Workshop

Source: Lobbying disclosure forms, Senate Office of Public Records

Graphic by: Madeline Beard,

Investigative Reporting Workshop

The growth of lobbying

Executives at military contractors saw opportunities for growth in the drone industry after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Military and intelligence officers began to use the drone as a weapon against al-Qaida and allied groups in Afghanistan. The nine companies, shown below, all make drones or computerized systems for aircraft and have invested heavily in lobbying members of Congress and other government officials. Several reached a peak in spending in 2008 followed by a decline during the recession, but many are spending more now than before the attacks.


Research: Rachael Marcus and Tara McKelvey, Investigative Reporting Workshop

Source: Lobbying disclosure forms, Senate Office of Public Records

Graphic: Haoyun Su,
Investigative Reporting Workshop

Ten leading contractors, a group that includes Northrop Grumman, AeroVironment and Alliant Techsystems, have spent more than half a billion dollars on lobbying between 2001 and 2012, data compiled for this article show. (Records were accessed through OpenSecrets.org and include spending only by parent companies, not subsidiaries, from 2001 through Dec. 10, 2012.)

Ties between executives at Northrop Grumman and McKeon are close: One executive, Tom MacKenzie, left Northrop Grumman in 2012 to work for the House Armed Services Committee. Northrop Grumman reportedly gave MacKenzie a bonus of nearly half a million dollars when he left for the lower-paying Hill position.

Critics say that lines between government and industry are blurred. Executives at one company, AAI Unmanned Aircraft Systems, were involved in the formation of the Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus, which McKeon co-chairs.

“We were part of that from day one,” AAI Senior Vice President Steven Reid says. “We were original plank holders in the UAV caucus and have helped work with Buck McKeon to create awareness of unmanned aerial vehicles.”

Many of the defense contractors belong to the Arlington, Va.-based Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. The Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus posts photos of the advocacy group’s posters on its website and echoes its language in press releases.

In mid-July 2012, Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the group, said, “Unmanned aircraft extend human potential.” Days later, the congressional caucus issued a press release, saying, “Unmanned systems have tremendous potential to save time, money and lives by extending the human reach.”

In addition, people who work for the advocacy group apparently wrote a section of the 2012 FAA legislation. “The industry was kind of bragging about it,” says Amie Stepanovich, a litigation counsel for Electronic Privacy Information Center, a group that opposes the widespread use of drones in the United States.

According to a slide presentation created for an event in North Dakota in 2011, Toscano referred to sections of the bill that looked at unmanned aerial systems: “The only changes made to the UAS sections of the House FAA bill were made at the request of AUVSI. Our suggestions were often taken word-for-word.”

But Ben Gielow, government relations manager for Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said later that the association did not write the bill. “We’re not members of Congress,” he says. “We don’t necessarily get anything passed into law.”

Still, he says that they were involved in the process. “As the industry advocacy group, we made suggestions,” he says, “and our suggestions were incorporated into the bill.”

The question is, “Will it pass the sniff test of how we think policy should be made?” says Sarah Binder, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “An average person would wonder, ‘Are these decisions that would be made in the absence of lobbying by the defense industry?’”

“This is the interplay where money has a huge impact. You make sure money gets to the key contractors in your district,” says Gary Bass, the founder of OMB Watch, which has since changed its name to the Center for Effective Government. “In the case of drones, the question — ‘Is this the smartest thing to do?’ — that may be secondary.”

As former lobbyist Abramoff says, “Ninety-nine percent of what I did is legal, so it’s easy to not cross over the line. Basically, you don’t need to break the law — you can be completely contemptible within the law.”

McKeon, who will turn 76 next year and, under House rules, will have to resign as chairman of the Armed Services Committee, believes in the drone industry, and money is given to him for that reason. With backing from the aerospace industry, he has become influential in Washington and in this way is now better able to help the industry obtain funding for unmanned vehicles.

“He’s working in a fundamentally corrupt system that’s written its own ethics rules, and those rules allow them to accept tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars from people whom they help,” says Wheeler of the Project on Government Oversight, describing McKeon and his work in Washington. “He is propelling business as usual — an apparatchik in a broken system.”

Contributing researchers: Maureen Chowdhury, Jennifer Collins, Rachael Marcus

Tara McKelvey is a contributor to the Investigative Reporting Workshop who now works for the BBC News.