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Monday, July 22, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

That’s Enough Light on Domestic Drones

(CN) - The Department of Homeland Security wants a federal judge to throw out the remainder of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit that has forced them to turn over information about hundreds of surveillance drone flights over U.S. soil.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital civil liberties group, sued the agency late last year for information on, among other things, the policies that the department and its component Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) had in place for domestic surveillance by unmanned aircraft. This question was answered in a Powerpoint presentation titled "CBP's Use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems in the Nation's Border Security."

"The report stated that CBP did not have any procedures in place for determining how to provide assistance to other federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies," the government's brief on the matter acknowledged on Thursday.

The Justice Department's inspector general chided law enforcement agencies for lacking these procedures on the same day as the brief was filed.

The EFF also won three years of "Daily Reports" detailing its assistance to other agencies.

These internal records revealed that the department arranged more than 500 flights for dozens of law enforcement organizations, including more than one-fifth of which helped Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the EFF's says.

This directly contradicts a footnote of the Justice Department's inspector general's report stating, "DHS has reported that it has operated its UAS on two occasions to assist DOJ law enforcement components."

Nobody at Justice Department's Office of the Inspector could be reached to answer questions about the discrepancy due to the federal government shutdown.

The rights group said it knew before this list came to light that the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Coast Guard received such help, but it learned from the report that Bureau of Indian Affairs, Grand Forks SWAT and several branches of the military also did.

The EFF remains curious about the organizations described on the list as "[Withheld] County Sheriff's Office."

Government lawyer Jennie Kneedler referred to this information as a "Location Redaction" in her 22-page motion for summary judgment.

"If CBP were required to disclose this information for all of the Daily Reports, one could piece together the locations where CBP [Unmanned Aircraft Systems] operate or do not operate," the brief states. "It would also show the frequency throughout the year that the UAS operate in a given geographic location... Knowledge of this information would reveal the law enforcement priorities of CBP and other supporting agencies, as well as OAM techniques for supporting law enforcement investigations. This would present a serious threat to future law enforcement investigations and would risk circumvention of the law." (Brackets added)

Responding to this claim on the EFF's website, staff attorney Jennifer Lynch wrote in a blog post: "It's hard to fathom how releasing the name of a county sheriff department-without any other information about the drone flight for that department-would somehow let the criminals in the area know they're being watched and help them evade detection."

Lynch noted in a phone interview that the government belied rationale by shedding light on assistance to state law enforcement organizations in Minnesota, Texas, North Dakota and Arizona. She said that she intended to make that point when the EFF files a response brief.

She is also trying to lift redactions from the department's "Concept and Operations of CBP's Predator B Unmanned Aircraft Systems: Fiscal Year 2010 Report to Congress," or Conops.

The government's brief states that the blackened out portions shields information about a "narcotics threat in a specific area," "targeting priorities and techniques," a "map showing airspace restrictions," and other restricted information.

Oral arguments on further disclosures are set for Dec. 11.

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