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 Thursday.
The disclosure came in a new report by the Justice Department’s inspector general, Michael Horowitz, who revealed that the department also has awarded $1.26 million to at least seven local police departments and nonprofit organizations for drones.
In addition, the inspector general said another Justice Department component, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, plans to use drones to support future operations. To date, the ATF has spent almost $600,000, the report stated.
From 2004 to May 2013, 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 concerns 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.
In a letter in July to Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., the FBI revealed it had used drones 10 times since 2006 for surveillance in kidnappings, search and rescue missions, and drug and fugitive investigations. Among them was last winter’s standoff between authorities and Jimmy Lee Dykes, who was shot to death after holding a 5-year-old boy hostage in an underground bunker in Alabama, the letter said.
The inspector general’s report cited the Alabama case but no others, saying only that a review of available records showed that the FBI appeared to be operating drones only after obtaining approvals from the Federal Aviation Administration.
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 prevented more widespread adoption of the technology.
Paul had been thwarting the Senate confirmation vote of Mueller’s successor, James Comey, over his concerns about the FBI’s domestic use of drones and had asked the FBI to address his concerns.
The FBI’s letter to Paul also said that while the Supreme Court had not ruled on drone use, prior rulings on aerial surveillance said court warrants were not needed because the areas monitored were open to public view and there was no reasonable expectation of privacy.
The inspector general report, however, said drones can maneuver into areas where expectations of privacy are not clear or well-defined.