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White House wants domestic drone use detailed publicly

Last modified: 9/27/2014 1:03:07 AM
The White House is preparing a directive that would require federal agencies to publicly disclose for the first time where they fly drones in the United States and what they do with the torrents of data collected from aerial surveillance.

The presidential executive order would force the Pentagon, the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies to reveal more details about the size and surveillance capabilities of their growing drone fleets – information that until now has been largely kept under wraps.

The mandate would only apply to federal drone flights in U.S. airspace. Overseas military and intelligence operations would not be covered.

President Obama has yet to sign the executive order, but officials said drafts have been distributed to federal agencies and that the process was in its final stages. “An inter-agency review of the issue is under way,” said Ned Price, a White House spokesman. He declined to comment further.

Privacy advocates said the measure was long overdue. Little is known about the scope of the federal government’s domestic drone operations and surveillance policies. Much of what has emerged was obtained under court order as a result of public-records lawsuits.

“We’re undergoing a quiet revolution in aerial surveillance,” said Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. “But we haven’t had all in one place a clear picture of how this technology is being used. Nor is it clear that the agencies themselves know how it is being used.”

Most affected by the executive order would be the Pentagon, which conducts drone training missions in most states, and Homeland Security, which flies surveillance drones along the nation’s borders around the clock. It would also cover other agencies with little-known drone programs, including NASA, the Interior Department and the Commerce Department.

Military and law-enforcement agencies would not have to reveal sensitive operations. But they would have to post basic information about their privacy safeguards for the vast amount of full-motion video and other imagery collected by drones.

Until now, the armed forces and federal law-enforcement agencies have been reflexively secretive about drone flights and even less forthcoming about how often they use the aircraft to conduct domestic surveillance.

Security officials are generally reluctant to disclose operational methods and techniques. But drones are in a special category of sensitivity, given the top-secret role they’ve long played in CIA and military counterterrorism missions. There’s also evidence that federal agencies simply have been unable to develop internal guidelines and policies quickly enough to keep up with rapid advances in drone technology.

“Federal use of drones has gone way up, but it’s hard to document how much,” said Jennifer Lynch, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based group that has sued the Federal Aviation Administration for records on government drone operations. “It’s been incredibly difficult.”


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