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Bennett reports: "In an interview, Michael C. Kostelnik, a retired Air Force general who heads the office that supervises the drones, said Predators are flown 'in many areas around the country, not only for federal operators, but also for state and local law enforcement and emergency responders in times of crisis."

US Drone, 10/06/11. (photo: U.S. Air Force)
US Drone, 10/06/11. (photo: U.S. Air Force)

Police Now Use Predator Drones on Home Front

By Brian Bennett, Los Angeles Times

12 December 11


Unmanned aircraft from an Air Force base in North Dakota help local police with surveillance, raising questions that trouble privacy advocates.

rmed with a search warrant, Nelson County Sheriff Kelly Janke went looking for six missing cows on the Brossart family farm in the early evening of June 23. Three men brandishing rifles chased him off, he said.

Janke knew the gunmen could be anywhere on the 3,000-acre spread in eastern North Dakota. Fearful of an armed standoff, he called in reinforcements from the state Highway Patrol, a regional SWAT team, a bomb squad, ambulances and deputy sheriffs from three other counties.

He also called in a Predator B drone.

As the unmanned aircraft circled 2 miles overhead the next morning, sophisticated sensors under the nose helped pinpoint the three suspects and showed they were unarmed. Police rushed in and made the first known arrests of U.S. citizens with help from a Predator, the spy drone that has helped revolutionize modern warfare.

But that was just the start. Local police say they have used two unarmed Predators based at Grand Forks Air Force Base to fly at least two dozen surveillance flights since June. The FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration have used Predators for other domestic investigations, officials said.

"We don't use [drones] on every call out," said Bill Macki, head of the police SWAT team in Grand Forks. "If we have something in town like an apartment complex, we don't call them."

The drones belong to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which operates eight Predators on the country's northern and southwestern borders to search for illegal immigrants and smugglers. The previously unreported use of its drones to assist local, state and federal law enforcement has occurred without any public acknowledgment or debate.

Congress first authorized Customs and Border Protection to buy unarmed Predators in 2005. Officials in charge of the fleet cite broad authority to work with police from budget requests to Congress that cite "interior law enforcement support" as part of their mission.

In an interview, Michael C. Kostelnik, a retired Air Force general who heads the office that supervises the drones, said Predators are flown "in many areas around the country, not only for federal operators, but also for state and local law enforcement and emergency responders in times of crisis."

But former Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), who sat on the House homeland security intelligence subcommittee at the time and served as its chairwoman from 2007 until early this year, said no one ever discussed using Predators to help local police serve warrants or do other basic work.

Using Predators for routine law enforcement without public debate or clear legal authority is a mistake, Harman said.

"There is no question that this could become something that people will regret," said Harman, who resigned from the House in February and now heads the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a Washington think tank.

In 2008 and 2010, Harman helped beat back efforts by Homeland Security officials to use imagery from military satellites to help domestic terrorism investigations. Congress blocked the proposal on grounds it would violate the Posse Comitatus Act, which bars the military from taking a police role on U.S. soil.

Proponents say the high-resolution cameras, heat sensors and sophisticated radar on the border protection drones can help track criminal activity in the United States, just as the CIA uses Predators and other drones to spy on militants in Pakistan, nuclear sites in Iran and other targets around the globe.

For decades, U.S. courts have allowed law enforcement to conduct aerial surveillance without a warrant. They have ruled that what a person does in the open, even behind a backyard fence, can be seen from a passing airplane and is not protected by privacy laws.

Advocates say Predators are simply more effective than other planes. Flying out of earshot and out of sight, a Predator B can watch a target for 20 hours nonstop, far longer than any police helicopter or manned aircraft.

"I am for the use of drones," said Howard Safir, former head of operations for the U.S. Marshals Service and former New York City police commissioner. He said drones could help police in manhunts, hostage situations and other difficult cases.

But privacy advocates say drones help police snoop on citizens in ways that push current law to the breaking point.

"Any time you have a tool like that in the hands of law enforcement that makes it easier to do surveillance, they will do more of it," said Ryan Calo, director for privacy and robotics at the Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society.

"This could be a time when people are uncomfortable, and they want to place limits on that technology," he said. "It could make us question the doctrine that you do not have privacy in public."

In North Dakota, Janke learned about the Predators last spring after local law enforcement was invited to a briefing on how two Customs and Border Protection drones based at the Grand Forks air base could assist police. He immediately saw advantages.

"We don't have to go in guns blazing," the sheriff said in a telephone interview. "We can take our time and methodically plan out what our approach should be."

Macki, head of the regional SWAT team, decided drones were ideal for spotting suspects in the vast prairie, where grassy plains stretch to the horizon except for trees planted to stem erosion from the winds.

"Anything where we need an advantage, we try to give them a call," said Macki, who declined to specify how often or where he has used the Predators. "We are very fortunate to have them in our area willing to assist us."

The first known use was June 23 after Janke drove up to the Brossart farm with a search warrant for cattle that supposedly had strayed from a neighboring ranch. The sheriff says he was ordered off the property at gunpoint.

The six adult Brossarts allegedly belonged to the Sovereign Citizen Movement, an antigovernment group that the FBI considers extremist and violent. The family had repeated run-ins with local police, including the arrest of two family members earlier that day arising from their clash with a deputy over the cattle.

Janke requested help from the drone unit, explaining that an armed standoff was underway. A Predator was flying back from a routine 10-hour patrol along the Canadian border from North Dakota to Montana. It carried extra fuel, so a pilot sitting in a trailer in Grand Forks turned the aircraft south to fly over the farm, about 60 miles from the border.

For four hours, the Predator circled 10,000 feet above the farm. Parked on a nearby road, Janke and the other officers watched live drone video and thermal images of Alex, Thomas and Jacob Brossart — and their mother, Susan — on a hand-held device with a 4-inch screen.

The glowing green images showed people carrying what appeared to be long rifles moving behind farm equipment and other barriers. The sheriff feared they were preparing an ambush, and he decided to withdraw until daybreak. The Predator flew back to its hangar.

At 7 a.m. the next day, the Predator launched again and flew back to the farm. The drone crew was determined to help avoid a bloody confrontation. No one wanted another Ruby Ridge, the 1992 shootout between the FBI and a family in rural Idaho that killed a 14-year-old boy, a woman and a deputy U.S. marshal.

This time, Janke watched the live Predator feed from his office computer, using a password-protected government website called Big Pipe.

Around 10 a.m., the video showed the three Brossart brothers riding all-terrain vehicles toward a decommissioned Minuteman ballistic missile site at the edge of their property. The sensor operator in Grand Forks switched to thermal mode, and the image indicated the three men were unarmed.

Janke signaled the SWAT team to move in and make the arrests. No shots were fired.

A search of the property turned up four rifles, two shotguns, assorted bows and arrows and a samurai sword, according to court records. Police also found the six missing cows, valued at $6,000.

Rodney Brossart, his daughter Abby and his three sons face a total of 11 felony charges, including bail jumping and terrorizing a sheriff, as well as a misdemeanor count against Rodney involving the stray cattle. All have been released on bail. Calls to Rodney Brossart were not returned Saturday. The family is believed to be living on the farm. your social media marketing partner


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+11 # Doubter 2011-12-13 00:25
I told you so.

Next, they'll send bumble bee size robots (they already exist) to spy and/or blow us up in our bedrooms! (specially if you badmouth the government and corporations in "Reader Supported News," etc.)
+14 # jmac9 2011-12-13 04:07
the excuse will be the fraudulent "war on drugs".
drones to further destroy your civil liberties.
No-knock bashing of your door without a search warrant...based only upon a cop's whim...
confiscating your property without a trial...
secret wiretapping your phone without judicial access...
secret invasion of your bank accounts, credit card records, even library book checkouts, with no warrant or review...
data mining of all your internet activity without a sanction or record...
Police State USA...USA prison nation #1.

How can the 1% control 99%? Only by police state operations...
and through your wimpy acceptance of the fraud of the "war on drugs", your country is now a prison.
The DEA is involved in the drug trade, the CIA is in the drug trade, Reagan was in the drug trade...
Gary Webb article here on RSN.
+4 # mwd870 2011-12-13 07:16
This reminds me of the America depicted in the series "Dark Angel."
+8 # RMDC 2011-12-13 08:54
This is really disgusting. The police state is being made more and more apparent. It is not at all unusual to see police or military patrolling streets with machine guns. Are they really expecting to use them? No. They are there to get americans used to total submission to the government. The implicit message is that we will kill you if you make any sort of trouble.

We can't seem to find money to repair schools, roads, provide healthcare to 50 million people -- but there is always money for the police state. Just imagine how things will be in 10 years. Everything we do will be watched by some form of police surveillance. No one will be able to resist. The jails will be overflowing with people held on charges of "domestic terrorism" so no trial will be needed.

I just don't understand the psychology of the police or the military who take on these fascist jobs. Don't they know what they are? Haven't they seen this played out in many countries? Why would they ever touch a predator drone or a military machine gun?
+2 # Glen 2011-12-13 15:20
The people being trained to "combat" citizens are not the average citizen themselves, RMDC. They are being recruited from ex-military, foreigners, (just as with Blackwater), ex-mercenaries from, say, the Balkans, and who knows. I have heard fellow workers and others declare they would sign up just to keep their town and family safe. They don't realize that is not how it works.

Your comments on enforcement essentially training citizens to adjust to this, is so true. It did happen in other countries. Of course, due to so many prisons being private enterprise, those developers will build more, just as they have shopping malls.
+8 # Capn Canard 2011-12-13 10:10
Without intense political pressure this insane militarization of police will only get worse.
+2 # qasee 2011-12-13 15:40
It's only a matter of time. Very soon these drones will be armed and 'to help avoid a bloody confrontation', they will fire at suspects. That will save the police from going to all that trouble of sending in the SWAT teams at all.
+1 # RMDC 2011-12-13 19:56
qasee -- this was exactly what the psychopath Winston Churchill's thought when the British military began dropping poison gas on rioting crowds in Egypt, Gaza, and Iraq. Egyptians and Iraqis did not want to be colonized by England, so Churchill ordered air planes to fly over the crowds and drop poison gas.

"I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. We have definitely adopted the position at the Peace Conference of arguing in favour of the retention of gas as a permanent method of warfare. It is sheer affectation to lacerate a man with the poisonous fragment of a bursting shell and to boggle at making his eyes water by means of lachrymatory gas.

I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes. The moral effect should be so good that the loss of life should be reduced to a minimum. It is not necessary to use only the most deadly gasses: gasses can be used which cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively terror and yet would leave no serious permanent effects on most of those affected."

You can be sure some American will be quoting Churchill in support of gassing americans from drones.
+1 # Glen 2011-12-14 07:51
Thank you, RMDC, for bringing up Churchill. His was a bogus reign and the idolization is totally misdirected concerning a man who was a blatant racist and indifferent to human needs or worth. I am afraid the U.S. is emulating some of the worst leaders, even if they were the winners in history, and do not see any other way to organize the U.S. other than through violence.

The wake up call for most Americans will be through that violence, rather than their own research and actions. Too bad, as I always say, folks didn't pay enough attention to science fiction or the evolution of their own government.
+2 # panhead49 2011-12-13 17:28
Don't forget - we've managed to put teeny tiny little cameras on cockroaches so if the drone doesn't see it, they can send in the roaches. Developed of course to help search for survivors in earthquakes, landslides - any number of excuses will be accepted.

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