FAA, DHS Say No Drones Are Being Used in Manhunt for Christopher Dorner

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Feb. 12 2013 11:11 AM

FAA, DHS Say No Drones Are Being Used in Manhunt for Christopher Dorner

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Law enforcement agencies are using many tools to track Christopher Dorner—but not drones, apparently

Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

Los Angeles cops are ploughing every resource into finding their embittered former colleague Christopher Dorner. But the toolbox of sophisticated tracking gear the authorities have to find the suspected killer is not likely to include spy drones, contrary to some dubious reports.

Ryan Gallagher Ryan Gallagher

Ryan Gallagher is a journalist who reports on surveillance, security, and civil liberties.

As the huge manhunt enters its seventh day, more than 1,000 officers have been searching for Dorner, who is believed to have killed at least three people in a rampage that began earlier this month. The 33-year-old is thought to be seeking vengeance over grievances stemming from his dismissal as an LAPD officer in 2008. Dorner, in a manifesto posted online, has promised to wage “unconventional and asymmetrical warfare” against LAPD officers and their families.

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Finding him is clearly a high priority. So when British newspaper the Daily Express published a report Sunday saying that the cops “plan to use spy drones” to search for him in mountains near Los Angeles, other outlets were quick to believe it. The Express, which is not known for its reliable reporting, also claimed the use of drones had been “confirmed” by a Customs and Border Patrol spokesman.

But none of this stands up to much scrutiny. The Express’ claims were called out as “inaccurate” by the Department for Homeland Security last night, with spokesman William Brooks telling me in an email that “CBP UAS [Unmanned Aerial Systems] are not flying in support of the search.”

The FAA, which regulates the use of drones across national airspace, raised further questions about the possibility of the aircraft being used. Spokeswoman Laura Brown told me that “no agency has asked us to issue a certificate of authorization for operating UAS as part of this search.” She added that even if an agency in the area had pre-existing authorization for drone use in the vicinity, they “would not generally be able to take advantage” of it “to conduct an op like this.” Why? Because authorizations cover specific areas and apply only for specific time frames. A drone search for Dorner would require an emergency authorization, Brown said, and one has (so far) not been issued. The LAPD said that as a matter of policy it does not comment on anything that concerns “tactics or machinery.”

It’s not hard to imagine how a military-style Predator drone equipped with a 1.8 gigapixel camera could help authorities in this case. Manned aircraft like helicopters may pose a safety risk, given that these fly at a much lower altitude than large drones and authorities have stated that they believe Dorner may be carrying a shoulder-fired missile launcher. But given the lack of authorization for a drone flight in the area, it is more probable that the cops are resorting to other methods.

For instance, the LAPD   is one of a number of forces across the country to have purchased a clandestine portable cellphone surveillance tool called the “Stingray,” which can covertly dupe phones within a specific area into hopping onto a fake network. If Dorner has a cellphone in his possession, the cops may try to hone in on him with the Stingray device. The problem for the authorities, however, is that Dorner is a textbook worse-case-scenario target. He is a smart, lone-wolf guerrilla operative apparently willing to die in the course of waging his “war.” He is a trained marksman who served in the Navy, with a keen understanding, no doubt, of counter-surveillance measures.*

Dorner’s background and training could render even the most advanced spy tools ineffective. That’s why the speed and success of the search effort may hinge on the ability of the cops to track the old fashioned way—droneless, with meticulous land searches, good instincts, and maybe a tip-off or two.

Correction, Feb. 12, 2013: This post originally stated incorrectly that Dorner served in the Army. He served in the Navy.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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