“Drone”-ing Out The Truth

Right-wing media outlets have been in full freak-out mode this week, fabricating a myth that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been using drones to spy on Midwestern ranchers. In fact, the EPA has been utilizing manned flyovers -- not drones -- to investigate potential polluters since the Bush administration, in an effort to save money and enforce clean water regulations efficiently.

For the past ten years, the EPA has conducted intermittent flyovers “to verify compliance with environmental laws on watersheds,” as Reuters reported:

“EPA uses over-flights, state records and other publicly available sources of information to identify discharges of pollution,” said a statement issued by the EPA's Kansas City regional office. “In no case has EPA taken an enforcement action solely on the basis of these over-flights.”

EPA has for 10 years used flyovers to verify compliance with environmental laws on watersheds as a “cost-effective” tool to minimize inspection costs, according to the statement.

The Lincoln Journal Star has reported the EPA uses four-seat Cessna airplanes -- not drones -- as even the John Birch Society's New American acknowledged in a correction to its report:

This article originally said that the EPA was using drones to monitor feedlots, but a representative from Senator Johanns office has alerted us that in actuality manned aircraft have been used to monitor the feedlots. We apologize for the error.

Nevertheless, right-wing commentators began falsely throwing the word “drone” into their reports about the EPA's enforcement mechanisms. For example, Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly:

KELLY: You know, you gotta picture yourself, right, as one of these Midwestern farmers, because what's been in the news lately? The fact that President Obama's killed more terrorists with drones than any other president. That President Obama has a so-called “kill list.” And that on that kill list, sometimes civilian casualties go as well, because if you're near an al-Qaeda terrorist, they assume if you're of an adult male age in a certain community, you also are a terrorist.

Even an American terrorist, an American al-Qaeda, was killed by a drone. So now you're in the Midwest, and you know you're not a terrorist, but nonetheless, you gotta get a little squeamish when you see a drone going overhead.

The Daily Caller followed suit in an article titled “EPA drones spy on farmers in Nebraska and Iowa”:

The Environmental Protection Agency has been accused of violating the privacy of cattle farmers in Nebraska and Iowa by using drones to spy on them.

Last week, Nebraska's congressional delegation submitted a joint letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson expressing concerns about the surveillance and questioning its legality.

The EPA responded that the use of drones is legal and cost-effective.

Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones' Infowars.com predictably hyped the drone myth, as did Investor's Business Daily, which fear mongered that the flyover program is limiting Americans' “freedom of movement and the presumption of innocence.”

The entire incident stems from a letter from Nebraska's congressional delegation about the flyover program. According to the Omaha World-Herald, the letter from the Nebraska delegates* was “written at the urging of the Nebraska Cattlemen, an industry group made up of cattle producers.” At least three of the five signatories to the letter have received campaign contributions from the Cattlemen, a fact the media left by the wayside.

*UPDATE: The letter from Nebraska's congressional delegation was originally described as being from Nebraska Republicans. In fact, the letter's signers included Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson.

UPDATE: On the June 18 edition of Fox News' America Live, host Megyn Kelly issued a correction to her earlier report: