Bogus EPA spy drone story lives on in paranoid minds

By David Horsey / Los Angeles Times (June 19, 2012)

Did you hear the one about the EPA spy drones that are darkening the skies over America’s farms and ranches?

No, that is not a set up for a funny punch line. There really have been reports of drones casting their evil robotic eyes down on the heartland. The joke is that the stories are completely false. They are simply another example of paranoid political lunacy being magnified a million times by the blogosphere and Twitter.

Last week, the Washington Post did a fine deconstruction of this latest fabrication gone wild. The Post identified several cable news reports, multiple blogs and four members of Congress who had spread word that the Environmental Protection Agency was sending aloft the same kind of drones that have been used to pick off terrorists abroad to target ranchers and farmers suspected of violating anti-pollution laws. In this case they were not going to blow up anyone, just take pictures of their nefarious activities.

The EPA denied all of this and, as it turned out, they were telling the truth. There was not a shred of evidence of drone activity. What is true is that, for more than 10 years, EPA inspectors have flown over agricultural lands in small aircraft to make inspections when they have received reports about manure dumped into streams or dirty runoff fouling clean water sources. Some cattlemen in Nebraska complained about the flights, calling them an invasion of privacy. In response, their dutiful congressmen wrote a letter of concern to the EPA.

Anti-government twits on Twitter heard about the complaint and concocted the fiction of spy drones. The story spread instantly on the Internet. When it got to the same congressmen who wrote the EPA letter, rather than questioning the warped version of their own story, they decried the drones on the floor of Congress. From there, Fox News picked up the bogus allegation. 

The nation’s keyed-up conservatives were thrilled to have another foul deed to pin on Obama and his Big Government henchmen. For three weeks, the drone tale ricocheted like a pinball from congressional offices to talk radio to cable TV to Twitter to conservative bloggers and back to Congress until sanity intruded and even Fox News had to retract their reports.

Of course, the story will live on, as all of these falsehoods do, and will show up in the future dark musings of radio preachers, in the ravings of right wing conspiracy mongers and in casual coffee shop discussions in small towns from Montana to Kansas. Liberals will get to point at this as yet another example of the Republican Party coming unhinged from the known universe.

Meanwhile, one little detail will go unacknowledged. It’s those grousing cattlemen. One of them is quoted as saying, “We don’t need our own government… flying over us, taking pictures of us, telling us what we’re doing wrong.” Oh, really? Just like we don’t need some government inspector checking on the safety of our food supply or seeing if some industrial plant is fouling our air?

Well, just as I am not at liberty to dump my garbage in my neighbor’s back yard, farmers and ranchers do not have a special right to despoil the water that is shared by other farmers and ranchers downstream. Behind this latest false story is the same old truth: Some people think they owe nothing to anyone but themselves and they are quick to demonize anybody who tells them they are selfish pigs.