The King Of Drones-- Buck McKeon Brings Home Some Disgrace Along With The Bacon
Not all that many of his own constituents have noticed, but last week the BBC called out a congressman from Santa Clarita: A lawmaker helped create the drone industry-- and has reaped the benefits. Don't expect any exposés like this in the Signal, or even the L.A. Times, but Buck McKeon's cushy-- and extremely corrupt-- deal with the drone industry has been raising eyebrows all over the world.
The story of how drones became a robust niche in domestic law enforcement-- and part of the commercial world as well-- is rooted in Washington DC. Indeed, the rise of the drone can be traced in part to one man, Howard "Buck" McKeon.What the BBC didn't take into account is that McKeon and his sleazy family have been working full speed ahead on setting up a private lobbying firm for drone manufacturers and other purveyors of the instruments of war. McKeon plans to retire from Congress and enrich himself and his brood as a lobbyist. He'll have a lifetime of chits to cash in by then.
McKeon, a California Republican, is chairman of the House armed services committee and co-chairman of a legislative group he founded, the Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus, which supports expansion of the industry.
Military officers on Capitol Hill and executives in the aerospace industry have welcomed McKeon's support.
Of the dozens of members on the Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus in the House of Representatives, McKeon has received the most "drone-related campaign contributions"-- $833,650 (£551,689), according to a report by Hearst Newspapers and the Center for Responsive Politics.
McKeon is a case study in how a member of Congress can work within the system, operate within ethical boundaries created by Congress, 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.
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 worked the system in Washington. But he was also convicted of bilking, or cheating, Indian tribes, and imprisoned for serious criminal offences.
After the scandal, members of Congress re-examined their ethical rules. Today, however, the system remains much the same.
Lobbyists promote clients, including the makers of drones, and contractors give money to members of Congress, who in turn work on legislation that regulates their industry. Within this world of money and politics, McKeon is one who stands out.
Not only is McKeon the recipient of contributions from drone manufacturers, but he is also one of Washington's most vocal supporters of the industry. He and members of his Capitol Hill office have close ties with lobbyists and contractors.
In a "Most Corrupt" report for 2012 compiled by researchers for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a progressive watchdog group, McKeon is one of several given a "dishonourable mention" over a mortgage he had received on preferential terms and his alleged improper use of official staff.
Another Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington report looks at the way members of Congress "use their positions to benefit themselves and their families."
The report says McKeon's campaign paid his wife, the treasurer, a salary of about $118,000 (£77,956) in the 2010 campaign cycle.
McKeon once received a cut-rate loan from lender Countrywide Financial, as researchers for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington point out. He was included in a congressional report about Countrywide's attempt to influence members of Congress.
McKeon has not been accused of wrongdoing. A spokesman for McKeon told a New York Times reporter that McKeon was "shocked and angry" to hear his loan was mentioned in the investigation.
...Drones cannot be used for commercial pursuits, though that is likely to change. At the behest of Congress, Federal Aviation Administration officials are looking at ways to introduce drones into the civilian airspace. Officials expect that 10,000 drones will be flying in the air by 2020.
The presence of drones above cities and towns has troubled lawmakers. 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. Lawmakers are worried drones will spy on people, especially since their sensors "scoop up quite a lot of information," according to the Brookings Institution.
In addition, drones are plagued with flaws. One may have been hacked, according to media accounts. Another crashed recently near Panama City, Florida.
...McKeon and other members of the Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus reportedly helped push through a law, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Modernization and Reform Act, in February 2012.
It sets policies for the civilian use of drones by 2015 and is designed to make things easier for journalists, filmmakers, biologists and others who want to use the drones in their daily work.
...The new law makes individuals such as the Project on Government Oversight's Winslow Wheeler uneasy. He says that McKeon and his colleagues in the congressional caucus are acting more as boosters of drones, rather than as critical observers of the industry.
When McKeon was a child in California, his parents sold meat out of a second-hand fish truck. Later they opened Howard and Phil's Western Wear, and he worked for the family business. He went to Brigham Young University in his 40s and majored in animal husbandry.
From his early days in Congress, McKeon was recognised as someone who worked hard for business owners. Jane Harman, a former member of Congress, introduced him at a 1993 event as "someone who helps me save the aerospace industry in California."
...In 2001 McKeon made the rounds at a trade fair near the US Capitol. He admired the Pegasus, which was made by Northrop Grumman, and told Helicopter News he was impressed with its "cost-effectiveness."
An executive with a company called Textron, which makes unmanned systems, started giving campaign money to McKeon that year. The following year, according to Aerospace Daily, McKeon began asking heads of the military services to issue a report about plans for unmanned aerial vehicles. McKeon continued over the next decade to push for federal money for drones and travelled to Turkey, Kuwait and elsewhere, speaking with officials about the unmanned aircraft.
McKeon is "the staunchest advocate for military power," says Thomas Donnelly, a director at the American Enterprise Institute, adding that McKeon has a "gentlemanly" manner.
..."Very affable and well-respected," says Mackenzie Eaglen, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
But Wheeler provocatively counters that McKeon's judgment is coloured by a lack of knowledge. "He reads off the material his staff has prepared," says Wheeler. "He has been spectacularly clueless in looking seriously at drones."
Critics say 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.
"We were original plank holders in the UAV caucus," says AAI Senior Vice-President Steven Reid. Many of the defence contractors belong to the Arlington, Virginia-based Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
..."The only changes made to the UAS"-- an acronym that refers to unmanned aerial systems-- "sections of the House FAA bill were made at the request of AUVSI. Our suggestions were often taken word-for-word."
..."We're not members of Congress," Gielow says. "We don't necessarily get anything passed into law." Still, he says they were involved: "As the industry advocacy group, we made suggestions, and our suggestions were incorporated into the bill."
Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says: "The question is will it pass the sniff test of how we think policy should be made?"
"An average person would wonder, 'Are these decisions that would be made in the absence of lobbying by the defence industry?'"
"You make sure money gets to the key contractors in your district," says Gary Bass of the Center for Effective Government.
"In the case of drones, the question-- 'Is this the smartest thing?'-- may be secondary," Bass says.
McKeon is one of the figures who are behind the growth of the drone industry, and money is given to him for that reason. With backing from the industry, he has become influential in Washington and in this way is better able to help them obtain funding for drones.
"He is propelling business as usual," says Wheeler, "an apparatchik in a broken system."