The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

January 25, 2014

Balloon surveillance latest spy tool launched on U.S.

From The Back Porch column

By Nerissa Young

— Here’s looking at you, kid. Just when Americans were getting used to the idea of drones circling overhead, here comes something with the potential to be more invasive.

A story in Thursday’s Washington Post reported the U.S. Army will deploy two aerostats near Aberdeen Proving Ground in October for a three-year test on their effectiveness in spotting potential threats to the homeland. The aerostats will be able to monitor activity from Lake Erie to Raleigh, N.C., from 10,000 feet above Maryland.

You may be thinking, “What is an aerostat?” Well, I’ll tell you.

It’s a big balloon tied to the ground. Inside that balloon may be radar, cameras and whatever else Uncle Sam decides to jam in it. Obviously, these aren’t your garden-variety party balloons — unless you’re the federal government.

Aerostats were floating above the U.S. at least 20 years ago. A friend of mine who is a trained meteorologist worked for defense contractor Westinghouse back in the day when America’s chief war was the war on drugs.

Those balloons had radar inside them so the government could track drug-carrying vehicles that crossed the border from Mexico. I thought that was pretty cool. Not now. Not after 9/11.

NPR reported a recent survey that more Americans are concerned about privacy now than they were immediately after 9/11. Then, people accepted anything they were told was in the name of protecting them. Privacy advocates were considered un-American.

What the people didn’t know until after the National Security Agency phone snooping was that not everything done in the name of protecting them actually protected them from the government that was supposed to protect them.

Raytheon has the defense contract to supply the aerostats that will hover in the Baltimore suburbs, The Post reported. It brags that it can outfit the balloons with a surveillance system that can spot individual people and vehicles from miles away.

Aerostats deployed over U.S. bases in Iraq and Afghanistan were used to spot insurgents, The Post reported. One over Kandahar caught up-close video of Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales returning to base after he killed 16 Afghan civilians. The footage clearly shows him carrying his rifle, a shawl over his shoulders.

The Army told The Post it has no plans to use such cameras in the aerostats. Well, there you have it. I feel about as secure with that promise as the NSA saying it won’t be monitoring my cellphone calls anymore.

The goal, the Army said, is to use the aerostats for missile defense — and to watch boats, trains and cars. I’ve been passed on the interstate by people who think their cars are missiles.

Information collected will not be turned over to local, state or federal law enforcement agencies, the Army pledged to The Post. Duh. If a badass missile comes flying toward the Capitol, they’re not gonna say anything?

I’m of the opinion that if the government wants my secrets, it ought to tell me its first. I promise I’ll share after it does. My promise is at least as good as Uncle Sam’s.

Folks in Maryland ought to be warned they can’t shoot those suckers down because the pressure inside the balloon is nearly the same as outside, which means it just keeps floating along, kind of like the marshmallow man in “Ghostbusters.”

— Young is a Register-Herald columnist. E-mail:

© 2013 by Nerissa Young