The drone tide continues to rise

In the last couple of weeks, drones have been doing what they do best: surreptitiously showing up everywhere, from local law enforcement to the FBI.

As the NSA scandal continues to grow, compounded by the release of ever more documents that demonstrate the pervasive reach of surveillance on US soil, the significance of this should not be overlooked. Drones are part and parcel of the cancerous domestic surveillance state.

On June 19, on the tails of the first revelations of the NSA spying scandal, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Robert Mueller came before the Senate Judiciary committee for an oversight hearing.

In his introduction to the hearing, Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) reminded the committee that the FBI needed to strike the balance between safety and civil liberties. The purpose of the hearing was to “review the broad intelligence authority Congress has granted the FBI” and to “ensure...that they do not violate the privacy rights and civil liberties of law-abiding Americans.”

It seems clear that the FBI is misusing that broad intelligence authority. During the hearing, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) questioned Director Mueller on whether the agency was using drones for domestic surveillance, based on his understanding from the Department of Justice that the DEA and ATF have drones.

The answer was yes, although the Director was quick to qualify that by saying “In a very, very minimal way, and very seldom.”

Senator Grassley also asked about oversight since DEA and ATF have been drawing up plans and procedures for their program: “I think I can assume the FBI has developed policies.

The response was hardly reassuring: "We are in the initial stages of doing that. I can tell you our footprint is very small."

Bottom line: the FBI already has drones, but has not yet developed policies and procedures for using them.

This was not lost on everyone. Following the hearing, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) issued an open letter to Director Mueller asking for specifics on the program by July 1. Sen. Paul’s letter asked for the types of information that should reasonably be included in any oversight, including how many drones the FBI has, whether they were or could be armed, and concerns around privacy protections, including:

1) How long has the FBI been using drones without stated privacy protections or operational guidelines?;
2) Why is the FBI only now beginning to develop guidelines for the use of drone surveillance?; ...
4)What measures do you intend to adopt to protect Fourth Amendment and privacy rights?

At the same time, funding for more drones was embedded in the controversial immigration reform bill, S. 744. The path to citizenship is paved with “the ‘full implementation and activation’ of $4.5 billion worth of surveillance technology—including drones.” The plan would apparently put 4 more drones in the air on top of the 10 the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) already has.

The drones at the border share far more similarity with the drones seen over Pakistan than the drones flown by law enforcement agencies in the United States. CBP, which is in charge of the Department of Homeland Security drone program, flies Predator drones. Yes, these are the same drones used overseas for “targeted killings.”

Drones will not only affect the border, since the border zone stretches into the interior and CBP is free to lend their drones to other law enforcement agencies.

For example, the bill allows for drones to be operated on a limited basis in San Diego: “U.S. Border Patrol may not operate unarmed, unmanned aerial vehicles in the San Diego and El Centro Sectors, except within 3 miles of the Southern border.”

Similarly, a CBP Predator was involved in the first drone assisted arrest, that of an accused cattle rustler in North Dakota.

To make matters worse, a report obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request by the Electronic Frontier Foundation shows that they may become more similar to those overseas drones, since CBP wants to arm its drones. As EFF attorney Jennifer Lynch so succinctly writes:

[T]his is the first we’ve heard of any federal agency proposing using weapons on drones flown domestically. That CBP has, without broader public discussion, considered this step—combined with the fact that the agency (with Congress’ blessing, if the immigration bill is approved, is planning to sharply increase the number of drones it flies—should cause serious concern for Americans.

It is clear that matters are continuing to worsen when it comes to drones. However, while federal agencies are certain to continue implementing and spreading drone technology, communities across the country continue to create drone free zones. Most recently, Evanston, IL, approved a two-year ban on drones. Evanston follows Conoy Township, PA,  St. Bonafacius, MN, and Charlottesville, VA, in restricting or prohibiting drones.

If you would like to see drones restricted or regulated in your area, check out our talking points and model legislation and contact us at organizing [at] bordc [dot] org to get started!

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