Little drone on the prairie: high-tech surveillance comes home

US Politics
on 12 Comments
Predator B
Predator B Drone (U.S. Customs and Border Protection: 2010)

Drones over Iran seemed bad enough, but drones over a family farm in North Dakota? Because of six purloined cows?

That’s the stunning story broken by the Los Angeles Times Sunday: in the plain states as elsewhere, local police forces have taken to calling in the drones, turning these creepy neo-spying craft on United States citizens living on United States soil.

The LA Times story focuses on the case of the Brossarts, a family of extremist anti-government farmers in Nelson County, North Dakota, who stole six cows worth $6000 and, after hustling a prying sheriff from their property with shotguns, wound up with an unmanned Predator B drone circling their gun-toting, heat-emitting selves. To be sure, the Brossarts do not subscribe to a warm and fuzzy belief system. As members of the Sovereign Citizen Movement, their particular brand of anarcho-wingnuttery involves an elaborate set of concentric anti-government conspiracies theories, initially rooted in white supremacy and anti-Semitism, that occasionally leads to deadly shoot-outs with law enforcement but mostly takes the form of irritating but harmless “paper terrorism.”

But how any of this justifies sending a drone to surveil them — the same hunter-killer drone that has been employed to such deadly and disturbing effect in Afghanistan — remains utterly confounding. 

And yet. As the LA Times Brian Bennett writes, local law enforcers, from small town sheriffs to former big-city police chiefs like Howard Safir, seem to have no problem calling in the drones:

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.”

[Snip]

“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.

Given how enamored local law enforcers are of this new toy, to say nothing of the creeping — no, make that galloping — militarization of this country’s police forces, we can no doubt expect to hear more of these drone stories. Who knows, maybe a farmer in Iowa will steal some sheep?

About Lizzy Ratner

Lizzy Ratner is a journalist in New York City. She is a co-editor with Adam Horowitz and Philip Weiss of The Goldstone Report: The Legacy of the Landmark Investigation of the Gaza Conflict.

Other posts by .


Posted In:

12 Responses

  1. Annie Robbins
    December 13, 2011, 10:31 am

    who stole six cows worth $6000 and, after hustling a prying sheriff from their property with shotguns, wound up with an unmanned Predator B drone circling their gun-toting, heat-emitting selves. To be sure, the Brossarts do not subscribe to a warm and fuzzy belief system.

    !!!!!!!!!

    priceless

  2. eljay
    December 13, 2011, 10:38 am

    But, really, what are the chances that gawd-fearin’ Amurrikans will ever be mistaken for an Afghan wedding party?

  3. Don
    December 13, 2011, 11:17 am

    “the country’s northern and southwestern borders to search for illegal immigrants and smugglers.”

    Northern border?? French Canadian trappers trying to smuggle fur pelts?

    • eljay
      December 13, 2011, 11:31 am

      >> Northern border?? French Canadian trappers trying to smuggle fur pelts?

      Haven’t you heard? Canada is THE terrorist gateway to America! Between that and our abundance of natural resources, there’s no reason for the US not to invade occupy liberate us. :-)

  4. Dan Crowther
    December 13, 2011, 12:04 pm

    From Greenwald on this the other day:

    link to salon.com

    Customs officials who own the drones claim there is legal authorization for this usage because they indicated in their budget requests to Congress to purchase the Predators that one purpose was “interior law enforcement support.” But Jane Harman — the former Blue Dog member of Congress who was the Chair of the Homeland Security Sub-Committee at the time the Predator purchases were approved — insists that “no one ever discussed using Predators to help local police serve warrants or do other basic work.” But even if you believe Customs officials, think about what they’re saying: the importation of drones to U.S. soil for law enforcement purposes was authorized not by a new law or regulatory scheme, nor pursuant to Congressional hearings or debates, but all because they inserted the phrase “interior law enforcement support” into their budget request — such a trivial mention that even the Chair of the Homeland Security sub-committee says she didn’t even realize this was being approved.

    — “even the Chair of the Homeland Security sub-committee says she didn’t even realize this was being approved.” How fucked up is this? But you know, nothing to see here, no big deal. New season of Jersey Shore coming up soon, College Football bowls about to start…..

  5. Dan Crowther
    December 13, 2011, 12:08 pm

    Oh canda, we stand on guard……. For Thee!!

    link to dissidentvoice.org

    Some of the measures found in the Beyond the Border action plan include conducting joint, integrated threat assessments; improving cooperative law enforcement capacity and national intelligence- and information-sharing; cooperating on research and best practices to prevent and counter homegrown violent extremism; working to jointly prepare for, and respond to, binational disasters and enhancing cross-border critical infrastructure protection and resilience. Other facets of the deal will work towards adopting an integrated cargo security strategy; implementing entry and exit verification; establishing and verifying the identity of foreign travellers to North America; better aligning Canadian and U.S. programs for low-risk travellers and installing radio frequency identification technology at key border crossings.

    • Walid
      December 14, 2011, 12:35 am

      “… Some of the measures found in the Beyond the Border action plan include conducting joint, integrated threat assessments; improving cooperative law enforcement capacity and national intelligence- and information-sharing; cooperating on research and best practices to prevent and counter homegrown violent extremism; working to jointly prepare for, and respond to, binational disasters and enhancing cross-border critical infrastructure protection and resilience. ”

      Whether for the US or Canada, you have to thank Israel for the spread of paranoia in both countries as it benefits the Israeli security industry. Israel begins by creating situations in other countries that give rise to paranoia and then sends in its hustlers to propose ways of fixing the problem, using Israeli technology, of course. The US bought into this Israeli con and convincing Canada to join-in was a pushover, especially since most of what goes on is kept from the general public.

  6. DICKERSON3870
    December 13, 2011, 3:07 pm

    RE: “Little drone on the prairie” ~ by Lizzy Ratner

    MY COMMENT: OMG, that is so damn clever! And very funny (in a scary way), to boot.

  7. Stogumber
    December 13, 2011, 6:43 pm

    Saying that the Brossarts “stole” the cows is saying more than can be proved here and now. The cows may (or may even not) simply have wandered into their area. And probably there have been feuds with the sheriff before (which may even have lured for a crime to fix on them), and they are in any case not the type of guys who would assume that a sheriff comes in good faith. So when they attacked the police, it mustn’t have been for the sake of the cows.

  8. Avi_G.
    December 13, 2011, 6:50 pm

    I think articles such as this, well-intentioned as they may be, need to emphasize the difference between helicopters, fixed wing aircraft and drones, for example. The average reader may not necessarily understand what the hullabaloo is all about given that law enforcement agencies use helicopters on a regular basis. The same applies for war zones where the US uses manned aircraft to bomb and kill civilians and non-civilians alike. Why is the threat posed by drones placed in a category of its own?

  9. Justice Please
    December 14, 2011, 7:13 am

    We’re all Palestinians/Afghanis/Iraqis/Somalis now.

Leave a Reply