Last month, the FBI admitted it had used surveillance drones in domestic airspace but refused to disclose specific details. Now, after pressure from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., the bureau has been forced to come clean.
In a recent letter to Paul, published on the senator’s website Thursday, the FBI acknowledges that it has used drones domestically in 10 cases in response to a “specific, operational need.” The bureau says that, since late 2006, it has used unmanned planes for surveillance to support missions related to kidnappings, search and rescue operations, drug interdictions, and fugitive investigations. On eight occasions the drones were used as part of criminal cases, and two in national security-related operations.
In none of these cases, the bureau says, did it apply for a warrant to conduct the drone surveillance. The letter states that the FBI will seek a warrant when using a drone only if it is attempting "to acquire information in which individuals have reasonable expectations of privacy under the Fourth Amendment." But it does not clarify exactly what kind of information it believes individuals have a reasonable expectation of privacy over. Paul has requested that the FBI provide more details, saying he is concerned that the bureau may be adopting an “overbroad” interpretation of the rules in order to conduct warrantless surveillance.
The FBI also told Paul in its letter, dated July 19, that none of its drones are armed with either lethal or nonlethal weapons, adding that it does not use the aircraft to conduct “bulk surveillance.” And the bureau confirmed reports earlier this year that the it used a drone in Alabama to support the rescue of a 5-year-old child being held hostage in an underground bunker. However, the bureau declined to publicly provide details on the other nine cases in which drones were used, saying that this information is “law enforcement sensitive.” The secret operational details were disclosed to Paul in a separate, classified addendum.
Paul has been a vocal critic of domestic drone use, raising concerns about how the controversial aircraft could be used to target and kill American citizens on their home soil. In March, the Kentucky lawmaker staged a 12-hour filibuster in the Senate, delaying the confirmation of John Brennan to lead the CIA, after he received a letter from Attorney General Eric Holder that refused to rule out domestic drone strikes in “extraordinary circumstances.” Last month, Paul said that he would launch another filibuster—this time to delay the nomination of James Comey to lead the FBI—unless the bureau explained how it was using drones. The threat came after FBI Director Robert Mueller told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the FBI had been using the aircraft in a “very minimal way” for surveillance purposes.
Drones have been used domestically in the United States since 2004 by the Department of Homeland Security, predominantly in border zones in Arizona and Texas. However, in some isolated cases the aircraft have been used for wider domestic law enforcement purposes. In one bizarre incident in 2011, for instance, a Predator drone was called in over a farming dispute in North Dakota.
The expansion of drones into domestic airspace continues to raise unresolved privacy and civil liberties questions, particularly as military-style drones like the Predator are capable of flying beyond sight at high altitude, carrying powerful cameras that can zoom in and covertly monitor the ground below. Recently disclosed documents have compounded these concerns, revealing that the Customs and Border Patrol agency has considered equipping its fleet of domestic Predators with “non-lethal” weapons and eavesdropping equipment to pick up phone calls on the ground below. (The FBI did not disclose in its letter to Paul whether it uses large military-style drones like the Predator, or smaller, commercially available drones like the Octocopter.)
The FAA is currently working to integrate drones into the national airspace system by September 2015, but the regulator says that it does not plan to change existing rules that “prohibit weapons from being installed on a civil aircraft.”