By Jim Kouri
The House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations, and Management, chaired by Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), held a hearing titled, “Using Unmanned Aerial Systems Within the Homeland: Security Game Changer?” on Thursday. It was a meeting that received scant media coverage considering the seriousness of the subject, according to several counterterrorism and legal experts.
According to some House lawmakers, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, have enhanced surveillance capabilities for military operations abroad and have increasingly been used within the continental United States as part of homeland security, such as border security operations.
However, as of June 2012, President Barack Obama’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) appointees have authorized about 60 private and government entities to operate UAVs in domestic airspace. The authorized entities include Federal, State and local law enforcement and academic institutions.
The House hearing examined the benefits and challenges to increased domestic use of UAVs for antiterrorism, counter-narcotics and human trafficking operations.
“Unmanned aerial systems, commonly referred to as ‘drones’, have been a force multiplier in our military operations abroad and along our borders. These systems are now being used in the United States by law enforcement, government agencies and even academic institutions,” said Rep. Michael McCaul.
“Some Americans worry such systems will become invasive ‘eyes-in-the-sky’. Others say domestic drones will eventually be armed,” McCaul noted.
Unfortunately, many lawmakers, law enforcement officials and civil libertarians have reservations about increased UAV use since no federal agency is taking responsibility for creating comprehensive policies and regulations concerning the use of these “spy-in-the-sky” systems domestically.
There are also lawmakers who are concerned with drones being fitted with weapons systems, as well, which would mean an end run around the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, that prohibits the use of the U.S. military domestically.
What appears to shock those who are apprehensive about domestic use of drones is the fact that not one Democrat politician of any importance has complained about using “spies in the sky” to monitor Americans, said former police captain George Sanchez. He points to the many instances when President George W. Bush proposed antiterrorism strategies that were met by near hysterics by the Democrats, the news media and groups such as the ACLU, and none of those proposals even approaches the level of the draconian use of drones.
“Additionally, vulnerabilities to ‘drone’ hackers exist, as recently demonstrated by researchers at the University of Texas, raising concerns these vehicles could be commandeered by terrorists or others with ill intent. Our hearing [examined] the Homeland Security Department’s role in the domestic use of unmanned aerial systems and determine the extent to which the Department is prepared to ensure oversight of domestic drones,” McCaul stated.
But Chief Deputy William McDaniel of the Montgomery County, Texas, Sheriff’s Office said during his testimony on Thursday: “There has been a knee-jerk reaction to the use of UAV’s by public safety agencies in the United States with national media outlets painting a dark picture of tens of thousands of “drones” being used daily to “spy” on citizens. We believe there is sufficient case law in place to establish, for the UAV community, the legal requirements and procedures for operation and also the necessary repercussions for those agencies who fail to comply with the legal mandates.”
“UAV’s operate just like their manned counterparts. Obviously, the primary difference is having a crew on the ground operating it as opposed to a crew operating the airborne aircraft. There has been case law developed over the years to deal with manned aircraft operations for public safety agencies. We believe these same laws would absolutely apply to UAV operations,” Chief McDaniel stated.