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FBI runs up $3M drone tab since 2006

| Friday, Sept. 27, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

WASHINGTON — The FBI has been using drones to support its law enforcement operations since 2006 and has spent more than $3 million on the unmanned aircraft, the Justice Department's internal watchdog said on Thursday.

The disclosure emerged in a new report by the Justice Department's inspector general, Michael Horowitz, who revealed that the department has awarded $1.26 million to at least seven local police departments and nonprofit organization for drones.

In addition, the IG said another Justice Department component, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, plans to use drones to support operations.

To date, the ATF has spent almost $600,000, the IG report stated.

From 2004 to May, the Justice Department spent almost $5 million on the unmanned aircraft.

In June, then-FBI Director Robert Mueller told Congress that the FBI occasionally uses the unmanned aerial vehicles but was developing guidelines in anticipation of issues that will arise “as they become more omnipresent.” In one instance this year, the FBI used drones at night during a six-day hostage standoff in Alabama.

The IG's report cited the Alabama case but no others, saying only that a review of available records showed the FBI appeared to be operating drones only after obtaining required approvals from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Civilian versions of unmanned military aircraft that have tracked and killed terrorists in the Middle East and Asia are in demand by police departments and border patrol units. Justice Department officials told the IG's office that none of their drones was armed. Law enforcement agencies want drones for a bird's-eye view that's too impractical or dangerous for conventional planes or helicopters to obtain.

The drones purchased by the Justice Department are what the FAA calls “small UAs,” unmanned aerial vehicles that weigh up to 55 pounds.

The FBI has said its unmanned aerial vehicles are used only to conduct surveillance operations on stationary subjects. In each instance, the FBI first must obtain the approval of the FAA to use the aircraft in a very confined geographic area.

Two other Justice Department components, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Marshals Service, have purchased drones for testing but said they had no plans to deploy them operationally, according to the IG's report. The Marshals Service spent $75,000. The DEA acquired its drone from another federal agency at no cost and said it planned to transfer the craft to another agency. The Marshals Service said it planned to destroy its drones because they were obsolete and no longer operable.

Civil liberties groups critical of domestic drone use say such operations could invade people's privacy. The government worries that drones could collide with passenger planes or crash — concerns that have slowed more widespread adoption of the technology.

Regarding potential privacy concerns, both the FBI and ATF told the IG's office that they did not believe there was any practical difference between how a drone collects evidence and how that's done by a manned aircraft, the report said.

The FBI told the IG that bureau guidelines require that agents get supervisor approval before conducting any aerial surveillance and comply with aviation laws and policies. As of May, the ATF said it was developing a checklist to guide how drone operators conduct flights.

“These officials did not believe that there was a need to develop additional privacy protocols” for drones, the IG's report stated.

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