GAO: DHS Flew Drones for 1,726 Hours Over Interior of U.S.

Brittany M. Hughes | October 3, 2014 | 3:45pm EDT
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(AP Photo/John Miller)

( - The Department of Homeland Security flew drones equipped with video cameras over the United States--away from border and coastal areas--for 1,726 hours from fiscal 2011 through this April, according to the Government Accountability Office.

At times, the drones--or Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS)--were being used for purposes other than border or immigration enforcement. But the GAO does not have a full accounting of when and where the drones were flown, or what they were used for during the flight hours spent in “other airspace.”

In a series of briefing slides provided in August to the staffs of the House and Senate appropriations subcommittees on homeland security (and publicly released this week), the GAO examined whether DHS’s use of drones complied with U.S. privacy and civil liberty laws. In the slides, the GAO noted that DHS border patrol drones, which are primarily used to “support border security operations,” were sometimes flown away from the border “in support of other federal, state or local law enforcement activities and for emergency humanitarian efforts.”

“DHS’s review reported that CBP operates UAS in accordance with its authorities, which do not limit use to border and coastal areas,” the GAO reported on briefing slide No. 2. “The location of UAS operations is limited by FAA requirements and CPB policies and procedures.”

These flights included missions to “provide aerial support for local law enforcement activities and investigations,” to agencies including the FBI and multi-agency task forces, and to “provide aerial support for monitoring natural disasters,” the report added on slide No. 11.

The GAO also referenced the 639-page Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014 -- the law that Congress passed with bipartisan support in January that fully funded the federal government for the remainder of fiscal 2014. Buried on page 250 of that law is verbiage that provides DHS with the authority to fly border patrol drones inside the United States for purposes other than border or immigration enforcement at the “discretion of the Secretary of Homeland Security.”

On briefing slide No. 27, the GAO quoted the Consolidated Appropriations Act, which states: “For necessary expenses for the operations, maintenance, and procurement of marine vessels, aircraft, unmanned aircraft systems, and other related equipment of the air and marine program, including salaries and expenses, operational training, and mission-related travel, the operations of which include the following: the interdiction of narcotics and other goods; the provision of support to Federal, State, and local agencies in the enforcement or administration of laws enforced by the Department of Homeland Security; and, at the discretion of the Secretary of Homeland Security, the provision of assistance to Federal, State, and local agencies in other law enforcement and emergency humanitarian efforts.”

This language has been included in annual appropriations bills since at least fiscal 2011, and was most recently included in the Consolidated Appropriations Act signed into law in January.

Between Fiscal Year 2011 and last April, border patrol drones logged 18,089 flight hours, the GAO reported. Of these, 3,184 hours, or 18 percent, were spent at the Northern border from Michigan to Washington. Another 10,396 hours, or 57 percent, were flown at the Southwest border, while 1,189 hours, or 7 percent, came from the Southeast border off the coast of Florida.

Another 1,594 hours, or 9 percent, were used for non-operational purposes such as training and transit.

An additional 1,726, or 9 percent, were used in “other airspace” outside of a border zone.

Responding to’s email request for a more detailed breakdown of the “other airspace” flight hours logged by CBP drones, Rebecca Gambler, director for Homeland Security and Justice for the Government Accountability Office, stated: “We do not have a further breakdown of the UAS flight hours (9 percent/1,726 hours) listed in our report as ‘other airspace.’”

According to the GAO, CBP has nine drones equipped with a video camera, infrared cameras, radar to detect movement, imaging systems to show terrain and buildings, and radar used to detect images of maritime vessels, the report stated.

The GAO added that the video recorded by drones is stored for a maximum of five years “to use in analysis and intelligence products."

While the GAO found that drones “do not have the capability to collect images from nonpublic areas, such as the interior of homes or business,” the report does not mention whether air surveillance is taken of backyards or other outdoor private property.

Of the nine drones, three of the drones are located in Sierra Vista, Ariz., three are in Grand Forks, N.D., and three are in Corpus Christi, Texas. A center in Jacksonville, Fla., “remotely operates aircraft launched from other [centers],” the report stated.

The GAO reported CBP began using drones in 2006, with all four centers operational by Fiscal Year 2011. The report added the CBP is allowed to use the drones only in airspace and locations defined by the FAA.”

The report also noted a recent review of CBP drone use by DHS “did not address the extent to which CBP use of UAS is within border and coastal areas.”

The GAO also stated that CPB utilizes an “oversight framework and procedures” to ensure compliance with all privacy laws, as well as a “Working Group” tasked with “identifying potential privacy, civil rights and civil liberties concerns with current or planned UAS uses.”

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