It's not what the federal law service is saying about an aborted drone-testing program that makes its virtual non-response to a Freedom of Information Act filed by the ACLU so TK. It's that it took a goddamned FOIA to get the Marshals to say hardly much of anything about what by all accounts appears to have been small-scale drone testings that took place nearly a decade ago.
We already know that some of America's crunchiest federal agencies are looking to harness the power of non-lethal civil drones--and that they're going fairly public about the technology's potential to overhaul natural resource management--for everything from dam-restoration inspection to tracking wildlife. (Nevermind drone hobbyists and the new nature porn.) And yes, we do know that on two separate occassions, in 2004 and 2005, as recently reported in the Los Angeles Times, the Marshals tested a pair of small-dry drones. Both crashed.
Which makes the predictably-redacted FOIA response that much more telling. It would seem that two drone test flights, both failures, hardly constitute robust trials--you know, the sort of big, nationwide rollouts that nowadays, with the Federal Aviation Adimistration struggling to pin down six proving grounds for domestic drones, have been the subject of numerous FOIA requests.
The Marshals' "UAV program", if you want to call it that (the USMS is), ended seven years ago. So you'd think the Marshals would've had no issue in laying out the scope and reasoning behing the tests, particularly in how concerns over so-called non-consensual surveillance of civilians were handled, and already gone public about it.
Wrong. A total of 30 pages relevant to the ACLU's request regarding records on unmanned aerial systems. But the Marshals' general counsel only ponied up two, and even those underwent near-blanket redaction. The pages "reveal almost no information" beyond the fact that the USMS "Man-Portable" UAV Program is using (or used, we're not sure) small, rapidly-deployable drones for "muli-role surveillance." You can read them, in addition to the associate general counsel's written response here (.pdf).
Of course, even if all of this left a bad taste in the Marshals' mouth, the service could conceivably just ring up other federal agencies--I'm thinking of Customs and Border Protection, which services a fleet of at least 10 Predator drones--when the need to drone on arises. Either way, there are still the hounds, right?
Top: US Marshals surround a protected witness. No drones involved (via White House)
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