The House of Representatives adopted an amendment to the Defense Appropriations Act Tuesday evening denying funds for unconstitutional drone surveillance of Americans by the Department of Defense.
Unlike more specific and contested amendments, such as the proposal by Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., to gut NSA data-mining efforts, the drone restriction does not cut a particular program or establish new legal limits.
The amendment, bundled with other proposals and adopted by a voice vote, "[p]rohibits the Department of Defense from using any funds to operate an unmanned aerial system in contravention of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution."
Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., authored the amendment.
Broun, currently seeking the 2014 GOP Senate nomination to replace retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said in a released statement the amendment "would put a check on drone activities funded by the Department of Defense to ensure that our military never becomes a component of the broad domestic surveillance being reported today," implying the measure is a preventative strike.
Another Broun-crafted amendment – approved in June as part of the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act - prohibits the government from conducting extra-judicial executions of American citizens with drones, unless they are "an individual who is actively engaged in combat against the United States."
Several federal agencies use drones, but the full scope of their use isn't clear. The New York Times reported earlier this month that Predator drones owned by Customs and Border Protection were lent to other agencies to investigate fishing violations and inspect Mississippi River levees. FBI Director Robert Mueller acknowledged in June that his agency uses drones without clear guidelines, but the agency hasn't yet disclosed the details of its drone operations.
"The practice of the federal government indiscriminately capturing and retaining our private information 'just in case' – and promising not to use it if they decide we aren't criminals – has got to stop," Broun said. "I am pleased that my colleagues stood with me to protect our constitutional rights."
Orin Kerr, a law professor at George Washington University and an expert on the Fourth Amendment, is skeptical that the one-line prohibition contained in the amendment will accomplish much.
"The Defense Department isn't allowed to violate the Fourth Amendment in the first place, so I would think it doesn't make any difference that they can't use funds to do so," Kerr told U.S. News.