FBI Uses Drones for Surveillance, Without Clear Guidelines

Robert Mueller says drones are "very seldom used" in the United States.


FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, June 19, 2013, in Washington D.C., where he said drones are "seldom used" on U.S. soil for their maximum capability.

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The Federal Bureau of Investigations uses surveillance drones domestically without clear guidelines for their use, FBI director Robert Mueller told Congress Wednesday.

That the FBI has drones at their disposal should surprise no one. The agency has used drones before, most notably during a hostage standoff in Alabama earlier this year. But Mueller said that the agency is still working on developing guidelines for the use of surveillance drones. The Department of Homeland Security and the Drug Enforcement Administration also have unarmed Predator drones at their disposal.

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During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) asked Mueller "Does the FBI use drones for surveillance on U.S. soil?"

Mueller replied "yes," but added that they are "very seldom used and generally used in a particular incident where you need the capability."

Domestically, Predator drones have led to only one arrest: Ranch owner Rodney Brossart was arrested in 2011 on his North Dakota ranch after a 16-hour armed standoff with Grand Forks police. The SWAT team there used a drone to make sure it was safe to raid the ranch. A District Court judge upheld the use of the drone, saying "there was no improper use of an unmanned aerial vehicle" during the arrest. Brossart was allegedly tased, and his lawyer claims "guerilla-like police tactics" were used to make the arrest. Brossart was not seriously injured.


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Last year, state prosecutor Douglas Manbeck said the drone was used only after police had secured an arrest warrant and that the drone was "not used in any investigative manner to determine if a crime had been committed."

Groups that are fighting against the use of drones domestically say the fact the FBI is using drones isn't news.

"We knew they had them," says Amie Stepanovich, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center's domestic surveillance project.

But the fact the FBI doesn't have any guidelines for the use of drones is troubling, she says. EPIC has petitioned the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection to stop flying drones along the borders until it develops drone use guidelines.

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"Government agencies should be prohibited from flying drones in the United States without meaningful rules to guide that use. These rules should be developed, subject to public notice and comment, [in a way] that will guide the use of drones," Stepanovich says. "EPIC has petitioned the U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection to suspend their program due to the agency's failure to develop such rules prior to extensive domestic use of drones. The FBI should be held to the same requirements."

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