The proliferation of nonmilitary drones in the United States poses a growing national security threat, top U.S. security and aviation officials warned Wednesday as they pressed Congress to pass legislation that would allow agents to target and potentially take down suspicious drones.
While the recreational and commercial use of drones has skyrocketed in recent years — there are now more than 1 million unmanned aircraft in the U.S. — criminals and terrorist increasingly use the technology for nefarious purposes, according to officials from the FBI, U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Federal Aviation Administration, who testified before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
“While (drone) technology offers tremendous benefits to the economy and society, we recognize the misuse of this technology poses unique security challenges,” said Angela H. Stubblefield, deputy associate administrator for the FAA.
Scott Brunner, a deputy assistant director of the FBI, said the bureau is “concerned that criminals and terrorists will exploit (unmanned aircraft systems) in ways that pose a serious threat to the safety of the American people.”
“That threat could manifest itself imminently,” he said.
In recent years, Islamic State and other terrorist groups have used cheap commercial drones to conduct reconnaissance and launch attacks. Officials said criminal gangs have used unmanned aircraft to traffic drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border and fly contraband into prisons.
But law enforcement agencies lack the legal authority to target drones even if they’re involved in criminal activity. That is because drones are designated as aircraft for the purposes of federal law. Current U.S. laws make it a crime to damage or destroy an aircraft or otherwise interfere with its operations.
Now, officials want Congress to pass the Preventing Emerging Threats Act of 2018, a bill proposed by the White House that would authorize FBI and Homeland Security agents to disable, seize and potentially destroy drones that threaten public safety.
The U.S. departments of Defense and Energy have the authority to target suspicious drones that fly over military and nuclear facilities.
The proposed legislation would extend that authority to the departments of Justice and Homeland Security, authorizing their heads to designate additional facilities and mass gatherings for counter-drone operations.
“That will be done through risk-based assessment,” said Hayley Chang, deputy general counsel for the Department of Homeland Security.
David Glawe, DHS undersecretary for intelligence and analysis, said the legislation is “critical to the security of the homeland.”
The bill would allow law enforcement agents to detect, identify, monitor and track hostile drones through radio transmission and other communications “without prior consent.” It would also authorize officials to disable, damage or destroy drones deemed threatening.
Without the additional authority, Brunner said the bureau “is unable to effectively protect the U.S. from this growing threat.”
Sen. Ron Johnson, Republican chairman of the panel, said he planned to tag the legislation as an amendment to the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, which the Senate began debating Wednesday.
Civil liberty advocates have raised constitutional concerns about the legislation, saying it gives law enforcement authorities broad and arbitrary power to target innocent operators of suspicious drones. The ACLU, the country’s oldest civil liberties organization, opposes the bill, arguing that the departments of Defense and Energy already have the authority to target threatening drones.
But Chang told lawmakers that the bill sets a high bar for launching a counter-drone operation.
“It has to be necessary to mitigate the threat,” she said.
“The decision as to where these technologies will be deployed is going to be made at the highest level,” Chang said, adding that the secretary of Homeland Security or the attorney general will make the decision in consultation with the FAA.
The Aerospace Industries Association trade group said it was “in the process of vetting this (bill) with our members, but we’re not ready to take a position as of yet.”
The FAA has registered more than 1 million drones, including 122,000 primarily commercial and public drones. The agency said the number could grow to as many as 4 million by 2021.