Eyes in the Sky

With little fanfare, the United States Department of Homeland Security has deployed drones high above Washington, Idaho and Montana

When I think of Canada, I picture caribou herds, universal health care and the occasional hockey brawl. Officials at our Department of Homeland Security, however, seem to think the neighbors up North pose a serious security threat. After all, the department has spent the past five years quietly building a fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles — also known as drones — to keep constant watch on the United States' northern border.

New details of drones in the North emerged only recently, thanks to the California-based Electronic Frontier Foundation. Last summer, the organization obtained a cache of documents about drone flights in America in response to its public-interest lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security. These documents reveal that the department, through its Customs and Border Protection Division, has deployed at least two Predator B drones to an operating base in Grand Forks, North Dakota. The drones make frequent surveillance flights along the U.S. border with Canada, using advanced radar and video systems to survey the expansive landscape.

The documents also outline the agency's efforts to grow its fleet. The Customs and Border Division, according to a 2010 report, plans to station seven drones along the northern border by the end of 2016. Moreover, by 2025 the agency wants a permanent fleet of 10 drones to monitor the border "seven days/week, 24 hours/day" from bases in North Dakota, Montana, Washington and elsewhere. The goal, in other words, is nonstop surveillance.

Predator B drones are the same machines our government has used in its bombing campaigns in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Operated by deskbound pilots protected in a bunker somewhere, the drones can fly for 27 hours without refueling and reach an altitude of 50,000 feet. With a wingspan of 66 feet, they can carry nearly 4,000 pounds of equipment, from infrared technology to missile systems. Though drones operated by Customs and Border Protection are not yet armed, the "Concept of Operations" report indicates that the agency has considered fitting them with "non-lethal weapons designed to immobilize" enemies.

This growing drone fleet is not used exclusively for border surveillance. Local, state and federal entities, from the Coast Guard to the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation, can borrow these machines from border officials to conduct domestic policing. According to flight logs obtained in the lawsuit, the Customs and Border Division performed more than 700 surveillance flights in support of other law enforcement agencies between 2010 and 2012 alone. Where, how and why these drone flights occurred remains a mystery; the flight logs are heavily censored.

Along our Southern border, Predator B drones have been in use since 2004, when our Customs and Border Division first began its experiment with these machines. Today, the agency has stationed at least four drones in Arizona, and it regularly loans them to organizations such as the Arizona Department of Public Safety and numerous county sheriffs' departments across the Southwest. The likelihood of civil liberties violations seems not to concern federal officials.

Drone surveillance in this country started in the West, probably because government security officials view its vast open spaces, remote mountains and dense forests as a weak link in America's armored exterior. It takes invasive technologies to control such unruly terrain, and drones must seem like the perfect tools. These airborne security cameras are able to accomplish in rural America what the standard security camera achieves on the streets of Los Angeles or Chicago.

The problem is that federal security officials have introduced these drones under a fog of secrecy and with little public oversight. They have counted on our ignorance as drones became a tool for warrantless domestic surveillance along our borders. As they plan to expand their fleets, they count now on our apathy.

That doesn't sit well with most Westerners I know.

The people I know respect privacy and individuality. They trust their neighbors and they cherish open land. They maintain a live-and-let-live ethic, or at least that's what they strive for. The surveillance machines polluting our skies threaten these basic values. They further empower national security bureaucrats, while we are forced to foot the bill for this infringement of our own protected liberties.

That's why states like Montana and Oregon have placed stringent limitations on drone surveillance within their jurisdictions. They recognize a threat when they see one.

We should not have to live in a world where spying robots hover above us like hawks and buzzards. Those who value privacy — from civil libertarians, tribal nations and wilderness advocates, to ranchers and Ron Paul Republicans — have a major stake in stopping this surveillance from spreading before it becomes the norm. ♦

Jimmy Tobias is a freelance journalist and former trail worker with the Forest Service in Idaho. This column first appeared in High Country News (hcn.org).

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