WASHINGTON (ThBlaze/AP) — The FBI has been using drones to support its law enforcement operations since 2006 and has spent more than $3 million on the unmanned aircraft, the Justice Department’s internal watchdog said Thursday.
The disclosure came in a new report by the Justice Department’s inspector general, Michael Horowitz, who revealed that the department also has awarded $1.26 million to at least seven local police departments and non-profit organization for drones.
In June, then-FBI Director Robert Mueller told the Senate Judiciary Committee that drones were used for surveillance in the U.S. but “in a very, very minimal way, and seldom.”
Mueller, a few months ago, said the FBI was developing guidelines in anticipation of issues that will arise “as they become more omnipresent.” In one instance earlier this year, the FBI used drones at night during a six-day hostage standoff in Alabama.
The IG’s report cited the Alabama case, but no others, saying only that a review of available records showed that the FBI appeared to be operating drones only after obtaining required approvals from the Federal Aviation Administration.
Civilian versions of unmanned military aircraft that have tracked and killed terrorists in the Middle East and Asia are in demand by police departments and border patrol units. Justice Department officials told the IG’s office that none of their drones were armed. Law enforcement agencies want drones for a bird’s-eye view that’s too impractical or dangerous for conventional planes or helicopters to obtain.
The FBI has said its unmanned aerial vehicles are used only to conduct surveillance operations on stationary subjects. In each instance, the FBI first must obtain the approval of the FAA to use the aircraft in a very confined geographic area.
Two other Justice Department components, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Marshals Service, have purchased drones for testing, but said they had no plans to deploy them operationally, the IG’s report said. The Marshals service spent $75,000. The DEA acquired its drone from another federal agency at no cost, and said it planned to transfer the craft to another agency. The Marshals Service said it planned to destroy its drones because they were obsolete and no longer operable.
The report though cited a need for a “DOJ-wide policy regarding UAS uses that could have significant privacy or other legal implications.”
Civil liberties groups critical of domestic drone use say such operations could invade people’s privacy. The government worries drones could collide with passenger planes or crash, concerns that have slowed more widespread adoption of the technology.
“No agency, including the FBI, should deploy domestic surveillance drones without first having strong privacy guidelines in place,” ACLU Senior Policy Analyst Jay Stanley said in a statement.
“We’re encouraged by the inspector general’s recognition that drones have created a need for privacy policies covering aerial surveillance. We urge the Justice Department to make good on its plans to develop privacy rules that protect Americans from another mass surveillance technology,” Stanley continued. “Congress, however, should pass legislation introduced by Reps. Ted Poe and Zoe Lofgren that requires law enforcement to get judicial approval before deploying drones, and explicitly forbids the arming of these machines.”
Florida, Idaho and Tennessee require that law enforcement agencies obtain a search warrant before using drones for surveillance.
In April, Virginia enacted a two-year moratorium on drone use except in cases of imminent loss of life. Many other state legislatures and municipalities are considering similar measures.
In addition to the money spent by the FBI and ATF, the Justice Department has awarded $1.26 million for drones to at least seven local police departments and non-profit organizations since 2007.
The Justice Department money was used by Eastern Kentucky University, the Sheriff’s Association of Texas, the Center for Rural Development in Kentucky, the Gadsden, Ala., Police Department, the Miami-Dade Police Department, the North Little Rock, Ark., police department and the San Mateo County, Calif., Sheriff’s Office.
The aerospace industry forecasts a worldwide deployment of almost 30,000 drones by 2018, with the United States accounting for half of them.