This is not “black helicopters” stuff. This is, as they say, the real deal. This appeared in Stars and Stripes, the news site of the U.S. Army.
A county sheriff in North Dakota had a search warrant for six missing cows in late June.
Wait a minute! Why does a sheriff in the wide open state of North Dakota need a search warrant for six cows? I mean, if crime is so low in rural North Dakota that a sheriff needs to get a search warrant for half a dozen cows, North Dakota must be close to paradise. And this was not even winter yet, when criminals presumably move south.
Three men with rifles chased him off.
Wait a minute! Three guys with rifles challenging a sheriff. That would mean a long jail sentence. Does this make any sense at all?
Fearful of an armed standoff, he called in reinforcements from the state Highway Patrol, a regional SWAT team, a bomb squad, ambulances and deputy sheriffs from three other counties.
He also called in a Predator B drone.
Wait a minute! A local sheriff calls in what sounds like a small army of armed peace officers . . . and orders a drone. Why? To get six cows that are defended by three men with rifles.
Is this the Twilight Zone? Or Candid Camera?
As the unmanned aircraft circled 2 miles overhead the next morning, sophisticated sensors under the nose helped pinpoint the three suspects and showed they were unarmed. Police rushed in and made the first known arrests of U.S. citizens with help from a Predator, the spy drone that has helped revolutionize modern warfare.
But that was just the start. Local police say they have used two unarmed Predators based at Grand Forks Air Force Base to fly at least two dozen surveillance flights since June. The FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration have used Predators for other domestic investigations, officials said.
“We don’t use (drones) on every call out,” said Bill Macki, head of the police SWAT team in Grand Forks. “If we have something in town like an apartment complex, we don’t call them.”
Where do local law enforcement agencies get drones? At what price? Is there a Rent-a-Drone listing in the Yellow Pages?
The drones belong to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which operates eight Predators on the country’s northern and southwestern borders to search for illegal immigrants and smugglers. The previously unreported use of its drones to assist local, state and federal law enforcement has occurred without any public acknowledgment or debate.
Wait a minute! These are limited uses. Why can a local sheriff rent a drone to find three men and six cows?
Congress first authorized Customs and Border Protection to buy unarmed Predators in 2005. Officials in charge of the fleet cite broad authority to work with police from budget requests to Congress that cite “interior law enforcement support” as part of
In an interview, Michael C. Kostelnik, a retired Air Force general who heads the office that supervises the drones, said Predators are flown “in many areas around the country, not only for federal operators, but also for state and local law enforcement and emergency responders in times of crisis.”
This does not pass the smell test.
But former Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., who sat on the House homeland security intelligence subcommittee at the time and served as its chairwoman from 2007 until early this year, said no one ever discussed using Predators to help local police serve warrants or do other basic work.
Using Predators for routine law enforcement without public debate or clear legal authority is a mistake, Harman said.
“There is no question that this could become something that people will regret,” said Harman, who resigned from the House in February and now heads the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a Washington think tank.
It gets worse.
In 2008 and 2010, Harman helped beat back efforts by Homeland Security officials to use imagery from military satellites to help domestic terrorism investigations. Congress blocked the proposal on grounds it would violate the Posse Comitatus Act, which bars the military from taking a police role on U.S. soil.
Proponents say the high-resolution cameras, heat sensors and sophisticated radar on the border protection drones can help track criminal activity in the United States, just as the CIA uses Predators and other drones to spy on militants in Pakistan, nuclear sites in Iran and other targets around the globe.
For decades, U.S. courts have allowed law enforcement to conduct aerial surveillance without a warrant. They have ruled that what a person does in the open, even behind a backyard fence, can be seen from a passing airplane and is not protected by privacy laws.
Nowe we know how the sheriff got access to the drones.
In North Dakota, Janke learned about the Predators last spring after local law enforcement was invited to a briefing on how two Customs and Border Protection drones based at the Grand Forks air base could assist police. He immediately saw advantages.
“We don’t have to go in guns blazing,” the sheriff said in a telephone interview. “We can take our time and methodically plan out what our approach should be.”
Then who was the target?
The six adult Brossarts allegedly belonged to the Sovereign Citizen Movement, an antigovernment group that the FBI considers extremist and violent. The family had repeated run-ins with local police, including the arrest of two family members earlier that day arising from their clash with a deputy over the cattle.
Well, you know what happened next. The sheriff found an arsenal.
Well, maybe not exactly an arsenal. But a few guns.
A search of the property turned up four rifles, two shotguns, assorted bows and arrows and a samurai sword, according to court records. Police also found the six missing cows, valued at $6,000.
Rodney Brossart, his daughter Abby and his three sons face a total of 11 felony charges, including bail jumping and terrorizing a sheriff, as well as a misdemeanor count against Rodney involving the stray cattle. All have been released on bail.
It’s coming to a neighborhood near you.