Unmanned aircraft from an Air Force base in North Dakota help local
police with surveillance, raising questions that trouble privacy advocates.
A Predator drone spy plane helped police make arrests
after a North Dakota family's run-in with a local sheriff. Rodney Brossart,
shown here, and his daughter and his three sons face felony charges.
(Lake Region Law Enforcement
Center / December
Armed with a search warrant, Nelson County Sheriff Kelly Janke went looking
for six missing cows on the Brossart family farm in the early evening of June
23. Three men brandishing rifles chased him off, he said.
Janke knew the gunmen could be anywhere on the 3,000-acre spread in eastern
North Dakota. 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.
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."
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.
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 their mission.
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."
But former Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), 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.
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.
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.
Advocates say Predators are simply more effective than other planes. Flying out
of earshot and out of sight, a Predator B can watch a target for 20 hours
nonstop, far longer than any police helicopter or manned aircraft.
"I am for the use of drones," said Howard Safir, former head of operations for
the U.S. Marshals Service and former New York City police commissioner. He said
drones could help police in manhunts, hostage situations and other difficult
But privacy advocates say drones help police snoop on citizens in ways that push
current law to the breaking point.
"Any time you have a tool like that in the hands of law enforcement that makes
it easier to do surveillance, they will do more of it," said Ryan Calo, director
for privacy and robotics at the Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and
"This could be a time when people are uncomfortable, and they want to place
limits on that technology," he said. "It could make us question the doctrine
that you do not have privacy in public."
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
Macki, head of the regional SWAT team, decided drones were ideal for
spotting suspects in the vast prairie, where grassy plains stretch to the
horizon except for trees planted to stem erosion from the winds.
"Anything where we need an advantage, we try to give them a call," said
Macki, who declined to specify how often or where he has used the Predators.
"We are very fortunate to have them in our area willing to assist us."
The first known use was June 23 after Janke drove up to the Brossart farm
with a search warrant for cattle that supposedly had strayed from a
neighboring ranch. The sheriff says he was ordered off the property at
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.
Janke requested help from the drone unit, explaining that an armed standoff
was underway. A Predator was flying back from a routine 10-hour patrol along
the Canadian border from North Dakota to Montana. It carried extra fuel, so
a pilot sitting in a trailer in Grand Forks turned the aircraft south to fly
over the farm, about 60 miles from the border.
For four hours, the Predator circled 10,000 feet above the farm. Parked on a
nearby road, Janke and the other officers watched live drone video and
thermal images of Alex, Thomas and Jacob Brossart — and their mother, Susan
— on a hand-held device with a 4-inch screen.
The glowing green images showed people carrying what appeared to be long
rifles moving behind farm equipment and other barriers. The sheriff feared
they were preparing an ambush, and he decided to withdraw until daybreak.
The Predator flew back to its hangar.
At 7 a.m. the next day, the Predator launched again and flew back to the
farm. The drone crew was determined to help avoid a bloody confrontation. No
one wanted another Ruby Ridge, the 1992 shootout between the FBI and a
family in rural Idaho that killed a 14-year-old boy, a woman and a deputy
This time, Janke watched the live Predator feed from his office computer,
using a password-protected government website called Big Pipe.
Around 10 a.m., the video showed the three Brossart brothers riding
all-terrain vehicles toward a decommissioned Minuteman ballistic missile
site at the edge of their property. The sensor operator in Grand Forks
switched to thermal mode, and the image indicated the three men were
Janke signaled the SWAT team to move in and make the arrests. No shots were
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. Calls to Rodney Brossart were not returned Saturday. The
family is believed to be living on the farm.