Eyes in the sky 

Reports detail drone activity in Montana, plans to expand

The sky above Montana is home range to a pair of Predator drones. You can't see them. You won't hear them. But along the borderlands near Canada, you can look skyward and reasonably wonder if an unmanned fixed-wing machine is watching.

There are at least two unmanned aerial vehicles—commonly known as drones—that regularly operate within Montana airspace as part of an ongoing mission to monitor the U.S. border with Canada, according to recently released reports.

Operated by Customs and Border Protection, the two drones are based out of an airfield in Grand Forks, N.D., with addition basing options in both Great Falls and Havre. The aerial vehicles cost $18 million each to purchase and another $3,000 per hour to operate. They can fly for 27 hours straight and carry 4,000 pounds of surveillance equipment, including radar, color video and infrared cameras. With speed and raptor-like sight, they shrink the vast border terrain.

And if Customs and Border Protection gets what it wants, more unmanned machines are on the way.

In June, after an extended Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, released a batch of documents that detail drone operations around the United States. The agency's 2010 "Concept of Operations" report, though heavily redacted, offers an overall picture of the future of drones on the northern border.

According to the report, CBP hopes to have seven drones stationed on the U.S.-Canadian border by 2016 in an effort to expand its surveillance operations into the Pacific Northwest and the northeastern United States. The agency's long-term goal is to have 10 drones stationed on the northern border, capable of conducting surveillance flights 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The report also notes that CBP has considered arming its drones with "non-lethal weapons designed to immobilize" targets of interest. Taken together, these revelations have heightened suspicions of the agency's surveillance strategy.

"Customs and Border Protection needs to assure the public that it will not equip its Predator drones with any weapons, lethal or otherwise," says Jennifer Lynch, the staff attorney who spearheaded the Electronic Frontier Foundation lawsuit. "Without first addressing this issue, as well as the lack of oversight over its drone surveillance flights across a large part of this country, the agency should halt the expansion of its drone program."

The two drones that currently fly over Montana are primarily used to watch for illegal activity along the northern border. But that is not all they do. According to CBP flight logs, the agency regularly uses its drone fleet on behalf of other agencies, including the FBI, as well as state and local enforcement entities. In 2012, CBP's 10 drones carried out more than 250 missions for different agencies across the country.

click to enlarge A report compiled by Customs and Border Protection details drone operations along the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico. - PHOTO COURTESY OF U.S. CUSTOMS AND BORDER PROTECTION
  • photo courtesy of U.S. Customs and Border Protection
  • A report compiled by Customs and Border Protection details drone operations along the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico.

Montana law enforcement is no stranger to federal involvement. Former Glacier County attorney Larry Epstein says that the Department of Homeland Security—of which Customs and Border Protection is a part—would often provide intelligence to local law enforcement in his county. In one instance, the drones helped bust a gang of car thieves. In another, they helped locate a missing woman's car.

Epstein, who served as county attorney from 1992 to 2010, is not certain whether CBP was using helicopters or drones or other technology in these instances. "But I know they were flying drones over my county," he says. "[The Department of Homeland Security] feels they have authority far from the border, but you will have to talk to them about that."

Despite repeated requests for a comment, CBP was not forthcoming with information about its drone program.

As a result of the growing drone presence in Montana, state legislators proposed a flurry of related bills during the 2013 legislative session. One bill, drafted by state Sen. Robyn Driscoll, D-Billings, sought to bar law enforcement from using as evidence any information collected by drones. It also prohibited state agencies from using drones armed with weapons of any sort. That bill was opposed by pro-drone politicians and law enforcement lobbyists, and died in committee.

Instead, SB 196, a bill proposed by Sen. Matt Rosendale, R-Glendive, gained traction. The bill prohibits local and state law enforcement from using data collected by drones as evidence in a court of law, unless a search warrant is first obtained. It has no jurisdiction over federal law enforcement, however, and contains no prohibition of weapon-carrying drones. In May, Gov. Steve Bullock signed SB 196 into law.

"To ban drones is totally unrealistic," says Epstein, the former county attorney, who also served as a lobbyist for state law enforcement interests during the 2013 legislative session. "The federal government already uses drones in Montana, and they are getting cheaper all the time. They aren't being used by local law enforcement now, but they will be."

The rising popularity of drones—whether used for law enforcement or other activities like wildfire suppression and crop management—is unwelcome news to some. With new revelations about government surveillance making headlines, privacy-minded citizens and civil libertarians argue that drone surveillance could be just another avenue of government and corporate snooping.

"Drones can go into remote areas or hover outside bedroom windows or fly into small confined spaces—they make it possible for a camera to watch every move you make," says Niki Zupanic, public policy director of the Montana ACLU. "Even for law-abiding citizens, that fact has a chilling effect on day-to-day life."

This story was updated Friday, Oct. 4.

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