Drone debate enters new territory: US citizens targeted at home

Domestic drone use is an ambiguous and ad hoc system with little oversight and no transparency. As law enforcement begin to use UAVs domestically, experts say we need to figure out a legal way to use them.

US Customs and Border Patrol have confirmed the use of a remote-controlled drone in the hunt for Christopher Dorner, a fugitive ex-cop with a $1 million reward on his head.

Dorner is alleged to have murdered two people connected to a former LAPD captain and wrote a ranting Facebook manifesto on his hatred for the Los Angeles police and President Obama, as well as other notable politicians.

He apparently blames former colleagues for his removal from the police force, and according to his statement, he is aiming to kill at least 20 people.

He is said to be hiding in the snowy San Bernardino mountains outside Los Angeles. Authorities believe Dorner, who is apparently very adept at concealment, is somewhere outside Big Bear, where his burnt-out truck was found.

The drones being used by Customs are apparently not weaponized, but the federal agency did admit via a spokesperson that they are in fact employing the use of UAVs to assist in finding Dorner in the California wilderness, using heat sensing technology, according to the Express. 

“This agency has been at the forefront of domestic use of drones by law enforcement. That’s all I can say at the moment," said Customs and Border Patrol spokesman Ralph DeSio, according to The Blaze.

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News reports have falsely claimed that Dormer is the first suspect pursued by a drone on US soil (the first was actually a case of tracking a cattle thief in North Dakota in June 2011).

However, although Dormer is not the first suspect, he probably will not be the last.

The drone debate is finally at hand for masses of Americans, as many are questioning where the oversight is, how the drones will be used, and if Border Patrol will use deadly force in this instance - or if they're even legally allowed to.

Shawn Musgrave, Projects Editor at MuckRock.com, a website that helps groups and indiviuals file Freedom of Information Requests, is one of a number of civil liberties experts concerned about what the escalation of drone use could mean, especially with municipal law enforcement departments join forces with federal agencies. 

"Obviously, local and federal agencies engage in mutual assistance all the time, but it would be nice to know," said Musgrave, who is heading MuckRock's drone project. "They say he's heading for the border. Fine. How far from the border, then, does that allow customs and border patrol drone to fly. Is it standardized, are there any regulations, who's signing off on things?" 

MuckRock and the Electronic Frontier Foundation are both attempting to develop a database of US drones, who owns them, and what they're being used for.

So far, however, the government and local police alike have been frustratingly uncooperative, not answering questions and sending form letters in response to FOIA requests, prompting MuckRock to resend letters over and over.

For example, Musgrave says the site has sent Customs and Border Patrol six different letters asking for information on their drone regulations, or even confirmation that they do indeed possess a drone.

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"We've gotten automatic email responses, but we've called, we've done everything," he said. "The Department of Homeland Security especially is a very non-cooperative agency when it comes to public records stuff. Their spokesperson quoted as saying they're on the forefront of domestic law enforcement, but then what's the oversight?"

In the Dorner situation, the use of drones to track a suspect is naturally concerning. But in general, there is little to no knowledge of the rules that govern domestic drone use.

The Obama administration's policy, which is vague and threatening, leaves drone use open-ended and open to any number of interpretations.

"The US government can order the killing of American citizens if they are believed to be ‘senior operational leaders’ of al Qaeda or ‘an associated force’ — even if there is no intelligence indicating they are engaged in an active plot to attack the US”

This includes US citizens, reports Mediate.

There is also no specific policy written to establish which agency has jurisdiction where and to what end.

For example, in the case at hand, investigators believe Dorner will make a run for the Mexican border, so it's not suprising that Customs and Border Patrol are involved.

However, who is responsible for the drones, should Dorner not head for the border?

"Obviously, local and federal agencies engage in mutual assistance all the time, but it would be nice to know: How far from the border, then, does that allow customs and border patrol drone to fly?" asked Musgrave. "Is it standardized, are there any regulations, who's signing off on things?"

It doesn't help law enforcement's case when three innocent and unconnected victims have already been shot at by "frenzied" police desperate to find Dorner. According to NDJ World News, none of those individuals were even driving the same make of car as Dorner.

Musgrave believes there should be more transparency and a willful openness on the part of both local and federal law enforcement to discuss drone policy with the public.

"These are things that I think the informed public should absolutely be able to know and it should be something that's more than just a fly-by-night type thing. It should be an explicit policy."

For more of GlobalPost's reporting on drone policy at home and abroad, check out our Special Report "The Drone Age: Why we should fear global proliferation of UAVs."