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Startling Drone Pilot Revelation in DOJ Audit

MANHATTAN (CN) - The FBI's entire arsenal of 34 unmanned surveillance drones rests in the hands of two pilots operating from a single location, the Department of Justice's inspector general revealed in an audit.

The new report follows up on an interim report from two years ago that first revealed that the bureau has used drones for domestic surveillance since 2006.

When inspector general Michael Horowitz last surveyed the program in September 2013, his report found that the Justice Department spent $3.7 million on unmanned aircraft, with the FBI accounting for 80 percent of that budget.

At the time, his office also criticized the FBI's failure to develop specific policies to protect the privacy of U.S. citizens or the integrity of the evidence the drones aim to collect.

The final audit released on Tuesday night revealed that the Justice Department has committed to - but has not yet - finalized policies across its agencies.

As with the last report, the inspector general remained concerned about waste and the structure of the program.

From one "centralized" location, the FBI's "single team of two pilots" deploys drones "in the context of 13 investigations, such as search and rescue operations, kidnappings, fugitive manhunts, national security missions, and anti-drug trafficking interdictions," the audit says.

Speaking of this layout, the auditors wrote: "We believe these circumstances could limit the FBI's ability to deploy [drones] to distant locations quickly or to multiple locations simultaneously."

The inspector general confirmed that the FBI obtained the Federal Aviation Administration's approval to operate drones in the field between 2010 and 2014.

No other U.S. agencies had flown drones by the time the audit had been completed in August 2014.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) spent "approximately $600,000 to purchase three different types of rotary-wing [drones] with a total of six [unmanned air surveillance] vehicles but never flew them operationally," the audit says.

In a footnote, the inspector general added that he was "troubled" that after spending money on drones, the agency "subsequently determined to have mechanical and technical problems significant enough to render them unsuitable for deployment."

Although the ATF said it eventually plans to operate its fleet, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Marshals Service told auditors they had no plans to use their own drones for an investigation.

Other agencies' drones, however, are another matter.

The inspector general found that the Department of Homeland Security sent its drones to assist investigations by FBI, ATF, DEA and U.S. Marshals.

DHS flew drones "at least 95 times between 2010 and 2013" for missions involving Justice Department agencies, the audit says.

These break down to 73 flights for the DEA, 13 for the FBI, four for ATF, three for the U.S. Marshals Service, and two for multiple Justice Department components.

"Our review of 50 of these flights found that the extent of DOJ involvement in these missions varied significantly, and most commonly, the cases receiving non-DOJ [drone] support involved joint task forces whose members included other federal, state, and local agencies," according to the audit.

Department of Justice spokespeople did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Three of its agencies - the FBI, ATF and Office of the Deputy Attorney General - replied to the inspector general with brief letters agreeing with the audit's recommendations.

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