Feds Detail Justice Department’s Drone Use, Call for More Rules

A Department of Justice Inspector General report lays out the limited ways domestic law enforcement is using drones, for now, and recommends policies to constrain their use.

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U.S. Air Force / Reuters

U.S. Air Force MQ-1 Predator.

Perhaps you remember the filibuster Kentucky Senator Rand Paul launched in March against the confirmation of CIA chief John Brennan in protest over the purported threat of domestic drone attacks. It contained some ominous-sounding predictions of how the U.S. government might target citizens with death from above using drones. “I’m not accusing anybody of being [Hitler],” he said, but the law “should protect you from a president that might kill you with a drone.”

Thursday the Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz released an interim report on the use of drones in the U.S. by DOJ, and it turns out the threat is very limited. Of DOJ’s agencies, only the FBI has used drones and none are armed or carry releasable projectiles, Horowitz reported. But the IG did find that other law enforcement agencies, like the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, plan to deploy the platforms, that DOJ has funded local use of drones, and that the Department has a grab bag of policies that need to be coordinated across agencies.

In other words, the problems of domestic drone use are just what many expected: there is expanding domestic use of drones largely for surveillance, and our rules are catching up to emerging technology.

(PHOTOS: Everyday Drones: Photographs by Gregg Segal)

Just to remind readers of the context of the report, Paul made some scary allegations. In Brennan’s confirmation hearing in February, Paul asked him whether the U.S. would use a drone strike to kill an American on American soil, to which Brennan responded he had “no intention of doing so.” That wasn’t good enough for Paul, so he took to the floor Mar. 6 to filibuster. “Are you going to just drop a hellfire missile on Jane Fonda? Are you going to drop a missile on Kent State?” he thundered. (A compilation of some of Paul’s more memorable statements can be found here.)

It turns out that with regard to domestic law enforcement, the use of drones—also known as “Unmanned Aerial Systems,” or UAS— is significantly less threatening. Says the report:

As of May 2013, four DOJ law enforcement components had either tested for evaluation or used UAS to support their operations. Although the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is the only DOJ component to have used UAS to support its mission, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) reported to us that it plans to deploy UAS to support future operations. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the United States Marshals Service (USMS) have acquired UAS for testing, but told us that they have no plans to deploy them operationally. Specifically, the DEA stated that it plans to transfer its UAS to another federal agency, while the USMS stated that it plans to destroy its UAS because its UAS are obsolete and no longer operable. From 2004 to May 2013, DOJ law enforcement components reported spending in total approximately $3.7 million on UAS, with the FBI accounting for over 80 percent of this amount.

The problems associated with domestic drone use are also less threatening and more typical of government dysfunction. It turns out FBI and ATF are kind of winging it when it comes to their policies for approving and using drones. The IG recommended the adoption of department-wide policies.

We believe the Office of the Deputy Attorney General (ODAG), which has responsibility within DOJ for formulating cross-component law enforcement policies, should consider the need for a DOJ-wide policy regarding UAS uses that could have significant privacy or other legal implications.

Lastly, Horowitz found that DOJ should more tightly oversee its funding of local law enforcement programs’ testing and use of drones. The department’s offices “have provided $1.2 million in funding to seven local law enforcement agencies and non-profit organizations to purchase UAS for testing or use,” the IG found. But the department had difficulty saying exactly how many awards it had made, and hadn’t required the recipients to “demonstrate that they could receive FAA approval to operate UAS or that UAS use was legal in their jurisdiction.”

All of which may not be as scary as asking if the U.S. government plans to kill Jane Fonda or blow up Kent State. But it should probably be fixed.

MORE: The Debate on Drones: Away from the Politics, the Nameless Dead Remain