The FBI uses drones in domestic surveillance operations in a “very, very minimal way,” Director Robert Mueller said.

Mueller, in Senate testimony today, acknowledged for the first time that the Federal Bureau of Investigation uses “very few” drones in a limited capacity for surveillance.

“It’s very seldom used and generally used in a particular incident when you need the capability,” Mueller said when asked about the bureau’s use of pilotless aircraft with surveillance capabilities. “It is very narrowly focused on particularized cases and particularized needs.”

Mueller’s remarks about the FBI’s use of drones — and the regular use of the vehicles by other law enforcement agencies — come as lawmakers and civil liberties groups are raising concerns about the reach of the government in the wake of the disclosure of two highly classified National Security Agency surveillance programs.

Leaks by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden to the Washington Post and the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper exposed programs that sweep up telephone call data from millions of U.S. citizens as well as Internet traffic that the Obama administration says involves foreigners based outside the U.S. suspected of plotting terrorist attacks.

Privacy Concerns

The revelations about the surveillance programs have reignited a political debate that has repeatedly flared since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. about the balance between civil liberties and protection from terrorism.

Lawmakers, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, and civil liberties groups have raised concerns about the impact on privacy of drones used by federal law enforcement agencies. The Homeland Security Department regularly deploys drones to oversee the southern border.

“This is a burgeoning concern for many of us,’ Senator Mazie Hirono, a Hawaii Democrat, said of drone use, by the government as well as by private companies or individuals.

The Federal Aviation Administration estimates there may be about 10,000 active commercial drones in five years. Bills have been introduced in at least 18 states to limit or regulate such aircraft, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The FBI only uses unmanned aerial vehicles when there’s a specific operational need to conduct surveillance on stationary objects, said a U.S. law enforcement official briefed on their use. The bureau must first get FAA approval, said the official, who asked not to be identified discussing internal procedures.

Drone Use

The FBI used a drone at a hostage standoff in Alabama earlier this year, when Jimmy Lee Dykes, 65, took a five-year-old boy hostage and barricaded himself in an underground bunker. After almost a week, the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team breached the bunker, killing Dykes and rescuing the child.

Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said during a March hearing on drones that he was ‘‘convinced that the domestic use of drones to conduct surveillance and collect other information will have a broad and significant impact on the everyday lives of millions of Americans going forward.”

Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, held the Senate floor for almost 13 hours in March over concerns that the U.S. could use armed drones to attack Americans on U.S. soil. Paul, who filibustered the nomination of eventual Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan, was told in a letter from Attorney General Eric Holder that the president didn’t have that authority.

FBI Guidelines

Mueller said the FBI is in “the initial stages” of formulating privacy guidelines related to its drone use.

“There are a number of issues related to drones that will need to be debated in the future,” Mueller said. “It’s still in its nascent stages, this debate.”

Senator Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat who has introduced a bill in Congress designed to set regulations and privacy protections for private use of unmanned aerial systems, said he was concerned that the FBI was using drone technology before finalizing privacy guidelines.

“Unmanned aerial systems have the potential to more efficiently and effectively perform law enforcement duties, but the American people expect the FBI and other government agencies to first and foremost protect their constitutional rights,” Udall said today in a statement.

Border Security

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a June 15 Bloomberg Television interview that the operation of unmanned aircraft makes “our forces on the ground more effective” and that privacy concerns are regularly weighed and addressed by an office embedded within the department.

“We are constantly making sure that we are abiding by restrictions and doing what we need to do from a border security perspective without invading
American’s rights,” Napolitano said in the interview for the program, “Political Capital with Al Hunt.”

Annual spending on unmanned aerial vehicles worldwide will almost double to $11.4 billion in the next decade, according to an April 2012 report by Teal Group Corp., a defense industry consultancy based in Fairfax, Virginia. Major drone makers include Northrop Grumman Corp. (NOC), based in Falls Church, Virginia; General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., in Poway, California; and AeroVironment Inc. (AVAV), in Monrovia, California, according to Teal.

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