Defense Department Drones Are Not Spying on U.S. Citizens

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A U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle assigned to the 174th Fighter Wing of the New York Air National Guard takes off on a training mission at Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield at Fort Drum in New York on February 14 2012. A recent news story wrongly suggested that the armed forces are eavesdropping on Americans from the sky. Ricky Best/reuters

This article first appeared on the Daily Signal.

Between 2006 and 2009, the Department of Defense participated in some 20 instances where its various unmanned aerial systems (drones) were used to provide reconnaissance over domestic territory in support of other government agencies, according to a recent USA Today story. This story was prompted by the release of a new Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

The title of the article, "Pentagon Report Justifies Deployment of Military Spy Drones Over the U.S.," implies that not only did the Department of Defense spy within the domestic territory of the U.S., but that it "justified" it with a report.

This is just poor journalism. None of the missions were "spying" on anyone. All the missions were in legitimate and legal support of other organizations in the U.S. governmental system. No one's rights were abridged.

The Department of Defense regularly executes a category of mission it calls within its doctrine "Defense Support of Civil Authorities," or DSCA.

This most often occurs in the form of high-water capable trucks in flooded areas, helicopters to rescue stranded citizens from roofs or just manpower to deliver food, water and medical care to disaster areas. Occasionally, certain technologies are only available in Department of Defense's inventory.

If a civilian agency needs such a capability, they request it, and if available, the Department of Defense is proud to be a part of the effort to help American citizens.

Most often this is seen when there is a widespread disaster (think Hurricane Katrina or Superstorm Sandy). In situations like that, the ability of a military drone to loiter for extended periods of time (20+ hours) and search for victims in need is a powerful capability.

Another example, which happened right after September 2001, was when the Department of Defense worked to assist locating the D.C. snipers. This would not be in this report because it occurred outside the FOIA request window of 2006-2009.

An early lead in the case (that turned out to be erroneous) was that the culprits were in a white panel van. Given the massive number of white vans potentially in the greater D.C. area, the FBI asked for some help before anyone else died. They turned to Department of Defense and asked for the use of a Predator drone to help them spot white vans.

Since the Department of Defense is prohibited by law from conducting surveillance against U.S. citizens in American territory, the secretary of Defense who wanted to be helpful said yes, but asked the attorney general of the United States to figure out how it could be done legally.

The procedure developed was to have the operator "fly" the drone, but have an FBI agent, who, with a warrant (which they had), can do surveillance sitting at the video screen and who took custody of all the tapes.

No military personnel ever had the ability to view them. Some might ask why such silliness. Since lives were at stake, just take the action.

The heads of the federal departments do not lightly cross such lines. And none of the examples in this most recent report crossed any either.

The bottom line is this; great care is taken to ensure that the law of the land is followed, and no citizens' rights are violated, even by accident. Strong walls have been built between the authorities of the different executive branch departments, and while they often support one another, great care is taken to never violate those authorities.

Let's hope that not many will take a bad headline out of context and wrongfully assume the Department of Defense has been spying on U.S. citizens in America.

Nothing is further from the truth.

Steven P. Bucci, who served America for three decades as an Army Special Forces officer and top Pentagon official, is a visiting research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.