On June 23rd Nelson County Sheriff Kelly Janke went looking for six missing cows on the Brossart family farm. Some of the Brossarts allegedly belong to the Sovereign Citizen Movement, an antigovernment group that the FBI considers extremist and violent. According to the sheriff three men with rifles prevented him from completing his search. Fearful of an armed standoff, he called in reinforcements from the state Highway Patrol, a regional SWAT team, a bomb squad, ambulances, deputy sheriffs from three other counties AND a Predator B drone.
The unmanned aircraft circled 2 miles overhead the 3,000-acre farm next morning, using it’s sophisticated sensors to pinpoint the three suspects and show that they were unarmed. Police rushed in and made the first known arrests of U.S. citizens with help from a Predator, the spy drone that has become a powerful yet controversial weapon used to fight the war on terror.
Local police say they have used two unarmed Predators based at Grand Forks Air Force Base to fly at least two dozen surveillance flights since June and the FBI and DEA have also used the drones for domestic investigations.
“We don’t use [drones] on every call out,” said Bill Macki, head of the police SWAT team in Grand Forks. “If we have something in town like an apartment complex, we don’t call them.”
The drones belong to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which operates eight Predators on the country’s northern and southwestern borders to search for illegal immigrants and smugglers. The use of drones to assist local, state and federal law enforcement has occurred without any public acknowledgment or debate.
In an interview, Michael C. Kostelnik, a retired Air Force general who heads the office that supervises the drones, said Predators are flown “in many areas around the country, not only for federal operators, but also for state and local law enforcement and emergency responders in times of crisis.”
Congress first authorized Customs and Border Protection to buy unarmed Predators in 2005, but former Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), who sat on the House homeland security intelligence subcommittee at the time and served as its chairwoman from 2007 until early this year, said no one ever discussed using Predators to help local police serve warrants or do other basic work. Using Predators for routine law enforcement without public debate or clear legal authority is a mistake, Harman said.
“There is no question that this could become something that people will regret,” said Harman, who resigned from the House in February.
In 2008 and 2010, Harman helped beat back efforts by Homeland Security officials to use imagery from military satellites to help domestic terrorism investigations. Congress blocked the proposal on grounds it would violate the Posse Comitatus Act, which bars the military from taking a police role on U.S. soil.
U.S. courts have allowed law enforcement to conduct aerial surveillance without a warrant ruling that what a person does in the open, even behind a backyard fence, can be seen from a passing airplane and is not protected by privacy laws.
“I am for the use of drones,” said Howard Safir, former head of operations for the U.S. Marshals Service and former New York City police commissioner. He said drones could help police in manhunts, hostage situations and other difficult cases.
Privacy advocates say drones help police snoop on citizens in ways that push current law to the breaking point.
“Any time you have a tool like that in the hands of law enforcement that makes it easier to do surveillance, they will do more of it,” said Ryan Calo, director for privacy and robotics at the Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society.
“This could be a time when people are uncomfortable, and they want to place limits on that technology,” he said. “It could make us question the doctrine that you do not have privacy in public.”