North Dakota police have made the first known arrests of U.S. citizens with help from a Predator, the spy drone that has helped revolutionize modern warfare.
WASHINGTON — 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 two miles overhead the next morning, sophisticated sensors 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.
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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.
Michael 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-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.
In 2008 and 2010, Harman helped beat back efforts by Homeland Security officials to use imagery from military satellites to help domestic terrorism investigations. 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.
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 Society.
“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.
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.
On June 23, 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 gunpoint.
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 under way. 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 handheld 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. This time, Janke watched the live Predator feed from his office computer. when 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 unarmed. Janke signaled the SWAT team to move in and make the arrests. No shots were fired.
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.