Defense Department Agencies Have Been Operating Drones Domestically Without Cohesive Guidelines

from the introducing-the-military's-new-domestic-routes... dept

It’s amazing how much stuff government agencies “take seriously” and claim they’re handling in accordance to all sorts of secret, but presumably strict, guidelines… once their actions have been exposed.

The Pentagon has deployed drones to spy over U.S. territory for non-military missions over the past decade, but the flights have been rare and lawful, according to a new report.

The report by a Pentagon inspector general, made public under a Freedom of Information Act request, said spy drones on non-military missions have occurred fewer than 20 times between 2006 and 2015 and always in compliance with existing law.

The thing is, the report says there’s actually no existing laws that specifically govern military drone flights over US territory.

There are various controlling federal statutes that define what the DoD is authorized to provide to domestic civil authorities. They include Title 10, Title 32, Title 42, and Title 50. There are no federal statutes that specifically address the employment of the capability provided by a DoD UAS if requested by domestic civil authorities.

So, while the Defense Department’s Inspector General found it to be compliant with all “laws, regulations and national policies” in deploying its drones domestically, its agencies are really mostly following their own internal guidelines when they do so.

Therefore, DoD and the Military Services have developed a policy framework for the domestic use of the UAS capability in accordance with the authorities granted for generic defense support. The framework also covers executive level policies that were developed to protect fully the legal rights of all United States persons, including freedoms, civil liberties, and privacy rights guaranteed by Federal law.

The report also says drone usage is governed by Executive Order 12333, which is basically like saying the Pentagon is free to cash in its blank domestic surveillance check from the administration whenever it sees fit.

On the plus side, the CIA’s drones are only being deployed about twice a year. This indicates it does take its internal restrictions seriously — far more seriously than other government entities.

“A U.S. Marine Corp UAS unit told us that once each month their wing hosts a community leadership program where local politicians are invited to view and learn about the capabilities of the various aircraft on base,” says the report, which comes from the Department of Defense Inspector General’s office. “During one such event, a local mayor requested UAS support to look for potholes in the area.”

That’s the problem with giving the local boys an eyeful of military technology. Their eyes go all pinwheely and they start envisioning the most mundane uses for billions of dollars of warfighting equipment. This mayor sees the DoD providing logistical support for the city’s pothole patrol. Law enforcement agencies see armored vehicles and assault rifles as being the crucial elements missing from their warrant service duties.

Fortunately, the Marine Corp. — which owned this particular drone — found the request did not make “operational sense.” One assumes the report was written with eyes perpetually rolling, something that had been restrained with great difficulty ever since the mayor popped the question.

On the other hand, DoD elements do have a legitimate issue with the restrictions — internal and otherwise — imposed on domestic drone usage. How are operators supposed to train if they’re not allowed to do so on American soil?

Multiple units told us that as forces using UAS capabilities continue to draw down overseas, opportunities for UAS realistic training and use have decreased. UAS unit commanders explained that providing UAS support to civil authorities could yield more realistic training opportunities and increase operational readiness. However, multiple commanders also stated that as a result of the restrictive approval processes for domestic UAS use, policy confusion, and Internal Service hesitations, potential training opportunities are missed.

Live combat zones in foreign nations are probably not the best place for on-the-job training. Every other aspect of military training is largely performed on US military bases. Not so with the DoD’s drones, according to the OIG’s report. Unfortunately, the office has no idea what to do about it other than recommend the DoD “address the concerns” in the future.

Each component is operating under its own internal guidelines according to the report, which means the DoD has yet to craft a universal policy for domestic drone deployment. This is also listed under the suggested fixes by the OIG. But overall, the Inspector General feels confident the DoD and its components are doing their best to limit use of drones to those clearly aligned with existing laws and policies — basically following the same rules governing the use of manned military aircraft for domestic surveillance.

Filed Under: , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Defense Department Agencies Have Been Operating Drones Domestically Without Cohesive Guidelines”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Mason Wheeler (profile) says:


I remember hearing (on Techdirt?) that the City of San Francisco (or somewhere thereabouts; may not be SF but close by) has developed an app for people to report civic-level problems like this. If the local municipality had one, I’d download it, catch a ride to lunch with a coworker, and report half a dozen potholes along the way.

Maybe the city that developed this should release the source, so other cities can benefit?

Anonymous Coward says:

But... training...

The US is flying their drones over the EU and specifically Germany via Ramstein to test them. At least that’s what they told the locals after ensuring them that the weapons are turned off.
So why would there be a need for training flights over US territory? Especially if you think about the lag that real combat flights have which domestic flights do not cover. Sending a signal from the mid east to space, to Ramstein, and then to the control center in the US does take quite a bit of time compared to US to US communication.
For you gamers out there you might grasp the difference between a ping of 30 (0.03 sec) and 3000 (3 sec). If you you train on a low ping server you won’t hit a thing on a high ping one.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: But... training...

“The US is flying their drones over the EU and specifically Germany via Ramstein to test them. At least that’s what they told the locals after ensuring them that the weapons are turned off.”
German citizens were asking if Germans were involved in US worldwide drone assassination program.
The answer is YES, every drone killing is AT LEAST relayed through US rammstein base in occupied Germany.
… and that would be illegal under German and international law, because it is government murder without a trial and yada yada…
but since Germany is occupied and is no Sovereign, thence the US can keep droning and NSA spying half the planet with Germans as their cable guys.

Personanongrata says:

Because They Can

The report also says drone usage is governed by Executive Order 12333, which is basically like saying the Pentagon is free to cash in its blank domestic surveillance check from the administration whenever it sees fit.

How an Executive Order penned in 1981, well before any drone surveillance technology was in existence/use, governs the domestic use of surveillance drones stretches the definition of the word – reasonable* – to the point of losing it’s meaning.

* As per the definition of reasonable found at:

Executive Order 12333–United States intelligence activities

Source: The provisions of Executive Order 12333 of Dec. 4, 1981, appear at 46 FR 59941, 3 CFR, 1981 Comp., p. 200, unless otherwise noted.

Personanongrata says:

Waste Not Want Not

This mayor sees the DoD providing logistical support for the city’s pothole patrol.

Maybe if we weren’t squandering our tax dollars on drone surveillance and other boondoggles we would have the money to fill the potholes and fund the new potable water purification facilities, firehouses, hospitals or schools many communities across the US are sorely lacking.

Whats a couple of trillion ($4.4 trillion and counting) of dollars and a few million lives?

Anonymous Coward says:

I can’t believe any one is surprised at this. When Obama thought there was a possibility he might lose the second term of office, they quickly released a policy for drones. So that if Romney had been elected it would have been in force by the time arrived in office. Once Obama knew that he would have a second term, the policy was pretty much ignored. Now, a year before he has to give up the bully pulpit, he’s again setting up the shackles on drone usage.

As far as how to train with a drone stateside, video games do well with this sort of stuff and the equipment the military can afford to purchase to make it realistic. If its good enough for astronauts I’m sure it would be good enough for potential drone pilots. Even the lag could be programmed in.

Drones aren’t the only thing that is restricted as to where they can be used in the US as far as military equipment goes. Tank firing of the main gun is another. Very few military bases have firing ranges with enough down range distance to accept live fire tank rounds. Mainly because they are fired at a point blank type trajectory with a high charge. The skip range on one of those rounds is a very long distance, counted in miles. They get around some of that with a whiffle ball type round that is limited in distance but does not actually represent the true characteristics of live fire rounds.

Anonymous Coward says:

I would put even money that one of the non-military flights so demeaned happened near where I live. Probably some german tourist got their dumb ass lost in Death Valley, and the Navy put in a solid. It’s happened before. Unfortunate that the said tourists think they can walk out.

I’d like to see how the community would like UAV operators to train. Operators need to be able to spot and track persons of interest in a city. Most military bases do not have cities, as most are quite small. Would you have the military spend a bunch of money to construct mock cities in the middle of nowhere, and fund actors to populate the city and act as if they are going about their daily lives to enable realistic training? That would get laughed out of congress in a heartbeat as a waste of money.

Fact is, training for military pilots takes place all over, not just over military bases. When I was young, I remember a B-52 with white weapons on tanking from a KC-135 at about 1500 AGL right over my neighborhood, which was many miles from the base. A few months ago, I saw some tanking practice over non-base land (mostly private, but some BLM land) just south of where I live. I don’t see any reason why drones can’t use American cities as training for search in cities, though I would have a problem with keeping any data from said training. Most likely that’s already happening in some locations.

You have to be able to train, test, and integrate with UAV in the states. That requires being able to fly the damn things in the states.

Finally: What’s so difficult about the word “corps”?

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...