Far from the battlefields of Afghanistan, a Predator drone was summoned into action last year to spy on a North Dakota farmer who allegedly refused to return a half dozen of his neighbor’s cows that had strayed onto his pastures.
The farmer had become engaged in a standoff with the Grand Forks police SWAT team and the sheriff’s department. So the local authorities decided to call on their friends at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to deploy a multimillion dollar, unarmed drone to surveil the farmer and his family.
The little-noticed August 2011 incident at the Lakota, N.D., ranch, which ended peacefully, was a watershed moment for Americans: it was one of the first known times an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) owned by the U.S. government was used against civilians for local police work.
Since then, the Washington Guardian has confirmed, DHS and its Customs and Border Protection agency have deployed drones — originally bought to guard America’s borders — to assist local law enforcement and other federal agencies on several occasions.
The practice is raising questions inside and outside government about whether federal officials may be creating an ad-hoc, loan-a-drone program without formal rules for engagement, privacy protection or taxpayer reimbursements. The drones used by CPB can cost between $15 million and $34 million each to buy, and have hourly operational costs as well.
In addition, DHS recently began distributing $4 million in grants to help local law enforcement buy its own, smaller versions of drones, opening a new market for politically connected drone makers as the wars overseas shrink.
The double-barreled lending and purchasing have some concerned that federal taxpayers may be subsidizing the militarization of local police forces and creating new threats to average Americans’ privacy.
“We’ve seen bits and pieces of information on CBP’s Predator drones, but Americans deserve the full story,” said Jennifer Lynch, a lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) that studies privacy issues and has sought information on drone use in the United States. “Drones are a powerful surveillance tool that can be used to gather extensive data about you and your activities. The public needs to know more about how and why these Predator drones are being used to watch U.S. citizens.”
The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), another privacy advocate which is pursuing litigation to force the disclosure of more information from DHS on drones, says it has found that the government has no official policies for how the drones can be used by local police, does not seek compensation from local law enforcement to recoup taxpayers’ expenses and claims it doesn’t keep records on how many times its drones have been deployed for local use.
“CBP’s drone program is shrouded in secrecy and legal ambiguity. Despite a specific mission to protect the border from illegal immigration and drug smuggling, CBP continues to let other federal agencies and local law enforcement bureaus use (its drones) for unrelated purposes,” said Amie Stepanvich, Associate Litigation Counsel for EPIC.
Indeed, when the Washington Guardian inquired about how many times DHS or CPB lent drones to local authorities, officials responded they didn’t have a formal loan-a-drone program but did on occasion lend the UAVs to help local police. But they declined to provide an exact number or a list of localities.
“While CBP does not have a ‘loan a drone’ program, we do work with national and sometimes state and local agencies for assistance,” said Ian Phillips, a spokesman for Customs Border and Protection.
Such answers aren’t satisfying to members of Congress worried about the costs to taxpayers and the implications of letting machines built for war to potentially impact privacy inside the United States in the name of security.
“We should not run from our basic constitutional principles because we have fear. That’s the best way I know for us to lose liberty. And you eventually give up your liberty if fear is your No. 1 guide,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., an influential voice on the federal budget.
Local police departments, stretching from the Canadian border in the Midwest to the Mexican border in Texas, confirmed to the Washington Guardian they have summoned CPB drones to help in local police matters ranging from the service of arrest warrants to armed standoffs.
Local SWAT commanders, in fact, said DHS and CPB encouraged the use of the drones to give its unmanned pilots training opportunities. And they argue the collaborations and deployments have helped saved lives.
“CBP reached out to us for training. We have developed a relationship with them, and we can call them when we feel we need their help,” explained Sgt. Bill Macki, the leader of the Grand Forks, N.D., SWAT team that summoned the drone back in August 2011 at the North Dakota ranch during the farmer standoff.
Macki said his department has asked to use CPB drones three times –inclement weather prevented one of those deployments — and he personally knows of other local departments in the Dakotas that have also used the unmanned aerial vehicles in the last year.
“The Predator drone helps us pull back and (gives us) the ability to control the perimeter and de-escalate the scene significantly,” Macki explained. “The (drones) have been a tremendous asset to our high-risk operations.”
An added bonus for law enforcement is that so far federal officials haven’t asked the local cops to repay the costs. “We have not been charged by CBP for the use of the Predator drone,” Macki said.
While ad hoc deployments continue, in May the Department of Homeland Security launched its “Air-based Technologies Program” to hand out grants to help underwrite local law enforcement purchases of their own drones, said John Appleby of DHS Science and Technology Directorate’s division.
The Texas Rangers, another local police agency, confirmed they too have summoned drones on several occasions from CPB, but said they do not keep records of how often.
A recent report by DHS’s inspector general, the agency’s internal watchdog, mentioned the Rangers’ use as one of several examples in which CPB has deployed its drones for outside police agencies – both at the federal and local level.
For instance, a CBP drone conducted surveillance for a sister federal agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, over a suspected smuggler’s tunnel. The mission yielded information that, according to an ICE representative, would have required many cars and agents to obtain, the report said.
The inspector general report warned that CBP has not implemented a formal process for participants to submit mission requests, and does not have agreements in place for reimbursement of the drone’s operational costs.
DHS is adding to its current drone fleet of 10 with the purchase of 14 more UAVs that will cost taxpayers $443 million. CBP officials have said they would like to ultimately fly the unpiloted aircraft to any part of the nation within a few hours at the request of other agencies to perform non-border security missions.
Safety in increasingly crowded American skies is also a concern. The Federal Aviation Administration has raised concerns about airport towers’ ability to recognize the UAVs.
Earlier this year Congress authorized the FAA Modernization and Reform Act that directed the FAA to accelerate the integration of unmanned aircraft into the national airspace system by 2015.
But numerous issues continue to dog the FAA’s progress of getting thousands of drones airborne. “Concerns about national security, privacy, and the interference in Global Positioning-System (GPS) signals have not been resolved and may influence acceptance of routine access for UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems) in the national airspace system,” a September 2012 Government Accountability Office reported.
Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., also expressed his concern with U.S. drones taking to the skies.
“FAA does not appear to be prioritizing privacy and transparency measures in its plan to integrate nonmilitary drones into U.S. airspace,” Markey said recently. “While there are benefits to using drones to gather information for law enforcement and appropriate research purposes, drones shouldn’t be used to gather private information on regular Americans.”
Others in Congress are supporting the expansion of drones. At least 60 lawmakers have formed a caucus to support the industry.
“UAVs have been absolutely critical in the fight against terrorism overseas, significantly reducing the loss of U.S. lives in war zones, which is one reason why I joined the House caucus. Another reason is that UAVs are made right here in San Diego,” explained Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif.
The explosion within the drone industry can be seen in San Diego. One of the two drone manufacturing epicenters it provides California with a much-needed $1.3 billion infusion of revenue.
According to a National University System report, the industry has doubled in the last five years and industry analysts predict the drone marketplace will double again and has the ability to grow its domestic business potentially adding $12 billion to the San Diego economy.
One of the smaller San Diego upstart drone companies, Datron, sees a bright future for smaller drones that weigh fewer than four pounds. Its top-selling drone, the “Scout,” flies for 20 minutes and provides real-time color videos needed to assist law enforcement agencies.
“Our product is geared toward meeting the mission requirements of our tactical users,” said Christopher Barter, program manager for Datron. The Scout operates using a PC tablet computer that is pre-programed, and requires little training. Barter says, “The Scout is the perfect search and rescue UAV.” Also, the 20-minute flight time curtails some privacy issues raised by civil liberties activists, he said.