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The Time the Federal Government Used a Predator Drone to Arrest Armed Ranchers

In 2011, anti-government ranchers chased law enforcement off their property using high powered rifles. The feds returned with a Predator drone.

Jason Koebler

Jason Koebler

Image: DHS

After three weeks, the standoff between the federal government and a band of armed, anti-government men in Oregon hunkered down in a wildlife refuge appears to be coming to a head. After a shootout yesterday, Ammon Bundy and seven of his fellow militants were arrested; one militia member was killed in the exchange. Now, law enforcement has apparently surrounded the refuge, with the remaining members of the group refusing to surrender.

With a conflict seemingly imminent, this may be a good time to remember that, not too long ago, the federal government helped end a standoff between police and a family of armed, anti-government ranchers in North Dakota with the assistance of an unarmed version of the Predator drone, which is most famous for conducting targeted killings in the Middle East.

The situations aren't exactly the same: The Oregon militiamen have made their standoff and their misguided anti-federal government rationale very public, while the one that occurred in North Dakota in 2011 played out more quietly and involved a man and his sons holing up on their own property, not storming and occupying the federal government's.

In 2011, six cows wandered onto the 3,000-acre ranch of Rodney Brossart, a man living in the small town of Lakota. Brossart, a "sovereignist" who doesn't acknowledge many of the laws of the United States, refused to return the cows to his neighbor, who owned them. The neighbor called the police, who came to arrest Brossart.

The story gets a bit weird from here. Brossart told the sheriff who came to arrest him, "If you go onto the property, you're not coming back." According to court records (and video of the incident), the sheriff "took this is a threat" and got into a shouting match with Brossart. He eventually tased Brossart several times. Brossart was arrested and taken to the hospital, and the cops left without recovering the cows. During this time, Brossart's three sons hunkered down on the ranch. When police returned with a search warrant to retrieve the cattle, his sons "came out with firearms in the air."

"The three lowered their weapons, pointing them at law enforcement," court records say. This started a 16-hour, armed standoff. The Grand Forks, North Dakota SWAT team returned and surrounded the property. During this standoff, the Department of Homeland Security diverted a Predator drone that was patrolling the US-Canada border to fly over Brossart's property. At some point during the standoff, the drone saw that Brossart's sons weren't in a position to use their guns (they had either put them down, walked away from them, or fallen asleep—the stories I heard while reporting the story back in 2012 differ), and the SWAT team raided the property to make the arrest. The court document simply says that an "unmanned aerial vehicle was offered by Border Patrol and was used for surveillance."

Image: Nelson County District Court

Brossart was initially convicted of the felony of "terrorizing" and was sentenced to three years in prison. He was acquitted in September of last year because a jury decided that his threat to the sheriff was within his free speech rights. His sons were detained but were not charged with crimes.

That the US uses Predator drones on American soil is often forgotten by the public. The Department of Homeland Security operates a fleet of 10 unarmed Customs and Border Protection Predator drones out of the Grand Forks Air Force Base. When I visited the base in 2014, a CBP agent who asked to remain anonymous told me that the agency "assists every state, local, or federal agency."

"Whenever an agency wants something done, they put in a request for it. As long as the request is validated, we go out and do that mission," the agent told me. "We sometimes do interior operations with law enforcement, or for Homeland Security investigations."

Rodney Brossart. Image: Lakota County

DHS has spent roughly $360 million on its drone program, and it can cost as much as $12,255 an hour to fly one. The whole domestic Predator program has been something of a colossal failure, with Congressional inquiries into the ineffective, expensive program. Last year, the DHS Inspector General said the program accounted for 2,200 arrests along the border in 2013. More recent numbers aren't available, but DHS itself has said it's unhappy with the results of the program.

There's been no public indication that the federal government is going to use a drone to surveil the group currently occupying the Oregon refuge. Motherboard has reached out to the DHS about whether the use of drones is being considered in Oregon. We'll update if we hear back.