A diagram of where DHS drones had been used in 2010. Photo: DHS
No need to prepare yourself to live in an America patrolled by drones: You've already been living it.
American law enforcement groups, including Border Patrol and the FBI, have been using drones more extensively—and longer—than anyone's been letting on, according to two new documents released this week.
Besides the handful of law enforcement agencies that have their own drones, the Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection has a fleet of Predator B drones that it says are used to help "identify and intercept potential terrorists and illegal cross-border activity."
But when they're not busy patrolling our borders, the agency lends them out to other federal and state agencies. A FOIA request by the Electronic Frontier Foundation revealed Friday that Homeland Security's Predator drones were used more than 500 times between 2010 and 2012, and that their use is increasing. In 2010, drones were lent out 23 times, mostly to agencies like the FBI, Coast Guard, and FAA. In 2011, they were used 229 times. In 2012, they were used 248 times, by unnamed sheriff's departments, the Department of Defense, the DEA, the Texas Rangers, and even the Bureaus of Land Management and Indian Affairs.
It's a nice workaround for agencies like the DEA, which, according to a just-issued Justice Department report, has "acquired [drones] for testing … but [has] no plans to deploy them operationally." The DEA operated a DHS drone or got assistance from a DHS drone 86 times between 2010 and 2012, according to the FOIA release. According to the Justice Department report, DHS drones had been used by federal law enforcement just twice.
Most notably, a Predator drone was loaned to the Grand Forks, North Dakota SWAT team in June 2011 to help arrest a Rodney Brossart, a cattle rancher who was engaged in a 16-hour standoff with police. It was the first time a drone was used to help make an arrest on U.S. soil.
In Brossart's case, a lawyer defending drone use for the state of North Dakota told me that the drone was called in "to help assure there weren't weapons and to make [the arrest] safer for both Brossart and law enforcement." But there are, still, no real guidelines for when a federal drone may or may not be used, and the data isn't often released. It took nearly a year from EFF's initial request for DHS to release its drone use information.
DHS says its drones are used "in areas that are difficult to access or otherwise too high-risk for manned aircraft or ground personnel." Bill Macki, the leader of the Grand Forks SWAT team at the time of Brossart's arrest, told me that his team had been briefed on when it could or could not use a drone, but that he couldn't provide specifics. He told me, last year, that his team used a Predator only one other time, unsuccessfully, to look for an "armed, suicidal individual." The EFF FOIA report says the Grand Forks SWAT team used a drone 14 times in 2011 alone. They do not appear to have been used by the SWAT team in either 2010 or 2012.
The EFF FOIA report only covers DHS drone use. The FBI has its own drones, and in July it admitted they'd used domestic drones 10 times. Well, according to the just-released DOJ report, the FBI has spent more than $3 million on drone activities since 2006. Between 2010 and 2011, the FBI coordinated with DHS on drone use at least 12 times. The drones have also been used in hostage standoffs, fugitive cases, and search and rescue operations.
According to the DOJ report, FBI officials "stated that they did not believe there was any practical difference between how [drones] collect evidence through aerial surveillance as compared to manned aircraft. Consequently, we found that the FBI has been applying its existing aerial surveillance policies to guide how agents should use [drones]."
That might explain why they have generally been using drones without first obtaining a warrant. The FBI says it's created an office that will regulate how drones are used, but specific guidelines have not yet been released. So the EFF might have a point when it says that their new information "shows, yet again, how little we know about drone flights in this country."