It turns out that those concerns from some about how the U.S. uses military drones against enemies abroad one day becoming an important issue domestically weren’t overblown.
A new report reveals the Pentagon has flown spy drones over U.S. territories for non-military missions for roughly a decade. Specifically, the report says the Pentagon flew “less than 20” drone missions between 2006 and 2015.
The facts of the domestic military drone program were revealed after the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) filed a Freedom of Information Act request. The response from the Department of Defense (DoD) Inspector General included a March 20, 2015 report, released to FAS last week, titled “Evaluation of DoD’s Use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems for Support to Civil Authorities.”
The partially redacted report found “no evidence that any DoD entity using UAS’s [drones] … in support of domestic civil authorities, to date, has violated or is not in compliance with all statutory, policy, or intelligence oversight requirements.”
There is, however, an interim policy that “encourages the use of DoD drones to support appropriate domestic mission sets.”
Further reading reveals that those “missions sets” may be broad in that they allow for requests for assistance “from civil authorities for domestic emergencies, law enforcement support, and other domestic activities, or from qualifying entitles for ‘special events.’” It’s not clear what “special events” refers to, but it’s safe to say that that term is sufficiently broad enough to cover any number of unknown scenarios.
Also included in that report is the DoD’s general policy on domestic drone use, which states, “Armed DoD [drones] may not be used in the United States for other than training, exercises and testing purposes.”
Nevertheless, the confirmed presence of military drones in U.S. air space will likely be of particular concern to those who have spoken out about the potential use of force via drone on U.S. soil. While there’s nothing to indicate that has happened, the topics has already been broached in Washington, D.C.
Back in 2013, Sen. Rand Paul directly raised the issue with Homeland Security, asking, “Do you believe that the president has the power to authorize lethal force, such as a drone strike, against a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil? What about the use of lethal force against a non-U.S. person on U.S. soil?”
The following month, then Attorney General Eric Holder responded to Paul’s drone strike question. Although Holder framed such a scenario as highly unlikely, he did say, “It is possible, I suppose, to imagine an extraordinary circumstance in which it would be necessary and appropriate under the Constitution and applicable laws of the United States for the President to authorize the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States.”
Still, Holder emphasized that such an order was “unlikely to occur.”
To date, any occurrences of American citizens being killed by U.S. military drones have been limited to incidents outside of the U.S.
While military drones are usually thought of as components of faraway foreign conflicts, there have been indications of domestic usage for several years.
In a 2012 report, FAS also surfaced a government plan to station 110 drone bases in 39 different U.S. states, including New York, New Jersey, California, Florida, Texas and Ohio.
Back in 2011, the ACLU published a report titled “Protecting Privacy From Aerial Surveillance: Recommendations for Government Use of Drone Aircraft,” warning of the impending arrival of military drones in U.S. skies.
“[The Federal Aviation Administration] is under strong industry and Congressional pressure to pave the way for domestic [military drone] deployment,” the report stated. “All the pieces appear to be lining up for the eventual introduction of routine aerial surveillance in American life — a development that would profoundly change the character of public life in the United States.”
But that development apparently arrived, unbeknownst to most of the public, before the ACLU’s report was even published.
International scrutiny regarding the use of drones to kill people in various countries has increased in recent years, with the United Nations devoting an entire research and recommendation paper to the issue in 2015.
And just this week, the Obama administration announced plans to release figures to the public that will tally the fatalities that have come as a result of U.S. drone strikes.