US Law Enforcement Seeks Authority
Over Nonmilitary Drones
June 7, 2018
The proliferation of nonmilitary
drones in the United States poses a growing national security threat,
top U.S. security and aviation officials warned Wednesday as they
pressed Congress to pass legislation that would allow agents to target
and potentially take down suspicious drones.
While the recreational and commercial use of drones has skyrocketed in
recent years — there are now more than 1 million unmanned aircraft in
the U.S. — criminals and terrorist increasingly use the technology for
nefarious purposes, according to officials from the FBI, U.S. Department
of Homeland Security and Federal Aviation Administration, who testified
before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental
“While (drone) technology offers tremendous benefits to the economy and
society, we recognize the misuse of this technology poses unique
security challenges,” said Angela H. Stubblefield, deputy associate
administrator for the FAA.
Scott Brunner, a deputy assistant director of the FBI, said the bureau
is “concerned that criminals and terrorists will exploit (unmanned
aircraft systems) in ways that pose a serious threat to the safety of
the American people.”
“That threat could manifest itself imminently,” he said.
In recent years, Islamic State and other terrorist groups have used
cheap commercial drones to conduct reconnaissance and launch attacks.
Officials said criminal gangs have used unmanned aircraft to traffic
drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border and fly contraband into prisons.
But law enforcement agencies lack the legal authority to target drones
even if they’re involved in criminal activity. That is because drones
are designated as aircraft for the purposes of federal law. Current U.S.
laws make it a crime to damage or destroy an aircraft or otherwise
interfere with its operations.
Now, officials want Congress to pass the Preventing Emerging Threats Act
of 2018, a bill proposed by the White House that would authorize FBI and
Homeland Security agents to disable, seize and potentially destroy
drones that threaten public safety.
The U.S. departments of Defense and Energy have the authority to target
suspicious drones that fly over military and nuclear facilities.
The proposed legislation would extend that authority to the departments
of Justice and Homeland Security, authorizing their heads to designate
additional facilities and mass gatherings for counter-drone operations.
“That will be done through risk-based assessment,” said Hayley Chang,
deputy general counsel for the Department of Homeland Security.
David Glawe, DHS undersecretary for intelligence and analysis, said the
legislation is “critical to the security of the homeland.”
The bill would allow law enforcement agents to detect, identify, monitor
and track hostile drones through radio transmission and other
communications “without prior consent.” It would also authorize
officials to disable, damage or destroy drones deemed threatening.
Without the additional authority, Brunner said the bureau “is unable to
effectively protect the U.S. from this growing threat.”
Sen. Ron Johnson, Republican chairman of the panel, said he planned to
tag the legislation as an amendment to the 2019 National Defense
Authorization Act, which the Senate began debating Wednesday.
Civil liberty advocates have raised constitutional concerns about the
legislation, saying it gives law enforcement authorities broad and
arbitrary power to target innocent operators of suspicious drones. The
ACLU, the country’s oldest civil liberties organization, opposes the
bill, arguing that the departments of Defense and Energy already have
the authority to target threatening drones.
But Chang told lawmakers that the bill sets a high bar for launching a
“It has to be necessary to mitigate the threat,” she said.
decision as to where these technologies will be deployed is going to be
made at the highest level,” Chang said, adding that the secretary of
Homeland Security or the attorney general will make the decision in
consultation with the FAA.
The Aerospace Industries Association trade group said it was “in the
process of vetting this (bill) with our members, but we’re not ready to
take a position as of yet.”
The FAA has registered more than 1 million drones, including 122,000
primarily commercial and public drones. The agency said the number could
grow to as many as 4 million by 2021.