Sunday, December 11, 2011

Police employ Predator drone spy planes on home front

Unmanned aircraft from an Air Force base in North Dakota help local police with surveillance, raising questions that trouble privacy advocates.

December 10, 2011, 6:12 p.m.

Armed with a search warrant, Nelson County Sheriff Kelly Janke went looking for six missing cows on the Brossart family farm in the early evening of June 23. Three men brandishing rifles chased him off, he said.

Janke knew the gunmen could be anywhere on the 3,000-acre spread in eastern North Dakota. Fearful of an armed standoff, he called in reinforcements from the state Highway Patrol, a regional SWAT team, a bomb squad, ambulances and deputy sheriffs from three other counties.

He also called in a Predator B drone.

As the unmanned aircraft circled 2 miles overhead the next morning, sophisticated sensors under the nose helped pinpoint the three suspects and showed 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 helped revolutionize modern warfare.
A Predator drone spy plane helped police make arrests after a North Dakota family's run-in with a local sheriff. Rodney Brossart, shown here, and his daughter and his three sons face felony charges. (Lake Region Law Enforcement Center / December 8, 2011)
But that was just the start. 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. The FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration have used Predators for other domestic investigations, officials said.

"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 previously unreported use of its drones to assist local, state and federal law enforcement has occurred without any public acknowledgment or debate.

Congress first authorized Customs and Border Protection to buy unarmed Predators in 2005. Officials in charge of the fleet cite broad authority to work with police from budget requests to Congress that cite "interior law enforcement support" as part of their mission.

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."

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 and now heads the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a Washington think tank.

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.

Proponents say the high-resolution cameras, heat sensors and sophisticated radar on the border protection drones can help track criminal activity in the United States, just as the CIA uses Predators and other drones to spy on militants in Pakistan, nuclear sites in Iran and other targets around the globe.

For decades, U.S. courts have allowed law enforcement to conduct aerial surveillance without a warrant. They have ruled 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.

Advocates say Predators are simply more effective than other planes. Flying out of earshot and out of sight, a Predator B can watch a target for 20 hours nonstop, far longer than any police helicopter or manned aircraft.

"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.

But 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.


Brock Townsend said...

They won't stop unless forced to do so.

Tattoo Jim said...

Your tax dollars at work....

Bushwack said...

Kind of torn on this issue. On one hand if used RIGHT this could save the lives of officers. Using them to track the jihadi training camps on American soil would be an area I'd be okay with too. BUT if used to spy on average Americans because some asshole with a badge suspects something like drug dealing or mattress tag removal is out of line...

A tool like this should be used on our border to keep slugs from coming before it's used within our country for any reason. And they should be armed as well as they are in afghanistan and used the same way. Spot illegal invaders, vaporize on the spot.

1 Poor Investor said...

I only support the use of high tech drones if the pictures & video surveillance are posted on the internet and that these images are used to ensure safety during "spring break" tittie contests. These young tender ladies should not be denied national security. As needed, those nudist beaches located near colleges should enjoy the same measure of national defense. Otherwise, zoom in on my ass!

Mr. White, Reservoir Dog Groomer said...

Posse Comitatus.

and why did the men face felony charges? For what? IF they keep playing their games, they will end up forcing citizens to follow that old south Texas rule quoted by Askins and others- shoot, shovel and shut up.

dhanna59 said...

Now listen ya'll, as for the rendevous of the RTC bunch goin on in .. and .. soon, I guaranfukkintee from federal drone flyover, there will be all license plates ID'd,owners checked and put into a data based and a subsequent profile made up of each individual concerned with a permanent file in DHS/BATFE/DoD/SPD/NCIS/localLEO,etc...when we assemble,assume compromise and infiltration has occured. Your private citizenship has been forfeighted. You are now ID'd as a confirmed potential hostile combatant...Conquer your fear of death, once you do that,and you will know it, anything is possible...Get Some

Anonymous said...

I bet a .50 calibre could make that drone haul ass or burn. Now since it's known that they want to play "hide the wienie", people can be expecting their underhanded shit and be prepared for what ever might be.

Anonymous said...

Read the first line of the report, "Armed with a search warrant..."

So, the cops weren't there illegally.

wirecutter said...

Anon - Missed it. Thanks.
But still, a drone? A combat vehicle?

Anonymous said...

Yes...if the knuckleheads hadn't confronted cops while armed with weapons, none of it would have happened.

I'm a conservative and all for personal rights and liberties. But, these guys were just plain stupid.

I used to be a cop and, with 3,000 acres and three guys with guns somewhere in that area, yeah...I'd want every advantage I can have to I can go home and see my wife and kids at end-of-shift.

wirecutter said...

Sorry, but I don't believe in the militarization of any police force and that agency crossed the line when it called in military help for a civil matter.
So much for the Posse Comitatus Act, huh?
And we don't know the history between the cops and the landowner. I know a couple cops that would be lucky to escape my property with their lives, warrant be damned.