Wicked Commentary

Spies In The Sky

LAKOTA, N.D. – The use of unmanned aerial drones, whose deadly accuracy helped revolutionize modern warfare high above the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, is now spreading intrigue and worry across the plains of North Dakota.

Amid 3,000 acres of corn and soybeans and miles from the closest town, a Predator drone led to the arrests of farmer Rodney Brossart and five members of his family last year after a dispute over a neighbor’s six lost cows on his property escalated into a 16-hour standoff with police.

It is one of the first reported cases in the nation where an unmanned drone was used to assist in the arrest of a U.S. citizen on his own property; and a controversial sign of how drones, in all shapes, sizes and missions, are beginning to hover over American skies.

Far from just the menacing aircraft bearing Hellfire Missiles and infrared cameras from combat, Unmanned Aerial Systems, the preferred term in the industry, now include products so small they fit in the palm of your hand and can look as innocent as remote-controlled hobby airplanes.

They can quickly scout rural areas for lost children, identify hot spots in forest fires before they get out of control, monitor field crops before they wither or allow paparazzi new ways to target celebrities. The government has predicted that as many as 30,000 drones will be flying over U.S. skies by the end of the decade.

But can drones fly in domestic airspace without crashing into an airplane? Can they be used in a way that doesn’t invade privacy? Who’s watching the drone operators — and how closely?

“All the pieces appear to be lining up for the eventual introduction of routine aerial surveillance in American life — a development that would profoundly change the character of public life in the United States,” the American Civil Liberties Union warned in a policy paper on drones last year titled, “Protecting Privacy From Aerial Surveillance.”

In the North Dakota case, fearing that the Brossarts had armed themselves, local law enforcement asked for the assist from the Predator — unarmed but otherwise identical to the ones used in combat — that’s stationed at Grand Forks Air Force Base as a SWAT team converged on the property.

It put Rodney Brossart front and center in the debate over the burgeoning use of domestic drones, and the threat they may represent when authorities are given the ability to watch everything from above.

“I’m not going to sit back and do nothing,” Brossart said recently, sitting in the shade outside his small house where farm equipment, trailers and the top half of a school bus sit in the yard in various states of disrepair. As drone use expands nationwide, he’s worried. “I don’t know what to expect because of what we’ve seen.”

Groups from the Electronic Privacy Information Center to the American Library Association have joined to raise concerns with the Federal Aviation Administration about the implications of opening up U.S. air space to drones, as have Reps. Edward Markey and Joe Barton, co-chairs of the Congressional Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus.

But the federal government already has been quietly expanding their use in U.S. air space. Even as the wars abroad wind to an end, the military has been pleading for funding for more pilots. Drones cannot be flown now in the United States without FAA approval. But with little public scrutiny, the FAA already has issued at least 266 active testing permits for domestic drone operations, amid safety concerns. Statistics show unmanned aircraft have an accident rate seven times higher than general aviation and 353 times higher than commercial aviation.

Under political and commercial pressure, the Obama administration has ordered the FAA to develop new rules for expanding the use of small drones domestically. By 2015, drones will have access to U.S. airspace currently reserved for piloted aircraft.

“Think about it; they are inscrutable, flying, intelligent,” said Ryan Calo, the director of privacy and robotics for the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School. “They are really very difficult for the human mind to cleanly characterize.”

While drone use in the rest of the country has been largely theoretical, here in eastern North Dakota it is becoming a way of life.

Drivers on Hwy. 2 near the Grand Forks base say they often see the U.S. Customs Predator B (the B indicates it is unarmed) practicing “touch and go” landings in the morning. A local sheriff’s deputy talked of looking up from writing reports in his patrol car one night to see a drone quietly hovering over him. Don “Bama” Nance, who spent 20 years in the Air Force before retiring to Emerado, now cuts the grass on the base golf course.

“They’re always overhead on the third hole,” he said.

The Grand Forks base has been flying drones sine 2005, when it switched missions from flying tankers to unmanned aerial systems. So, too, have the storied Happy Hooligans of the North Dakota Air National Guard, which has flown drone missions in Iraq and Afghanistan from its base in Fargo.

And use is growing. Predators operated by Customs and Border Patrol completed more than 30 hours of flight in 2009 and more than 55 hours in 2010, mapping the flooded Red River Valley areas of North Dakota and Minnesota. In 2011, the Predator B flew close to 250 hours in disaster relief support along the northern border.

The Grand Forks base, which now has two Predators flying, expects to have as many as 15 Northrop Grumman Global Hawks and six to eight General Atomics Predators/Reapers. That will add an additional 907 Air Force personnel to the base.

For this wide swath of eastern North Dakota, that is part of the appeal: jobs. The University of North Dakota has eagerly partnered with the military and defense contractors, and often operating behind locked doors and secrecy, university officials are working to make the area a hub of unmanned aircraft activity. The state has invested an estimated $12.5 million to make it happen. The local Economic Development Corporation has added a drone coordinator in charge of recruiting more companies to join the 16 drone-related ones that have already set up shop.

“Where aviation was in 1925, that’s where we are today with unmanned aerial vehicles,” said Al Palmer, director of UND’s Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research, Education and Training. “The possibilities are endless.”

A new major

The University of North Dakota operates a fleet of seven different types of unmanned aircraft. In 2009, it became the first college in the country to offer a four-year degree in unmanned aircraft piloting. It now has 23 graduates and 84 students majoring in the program, which is open only to U.S. citizens.

It works with Northland Community College in Thief River Falls, Minn., which developed the first drone maintenance training center in the country and proudly shows off its own full-size Global Hawk.

The university also serves as an incubator for companies that might want to expand the industry. In five days, Unmanned Applications Institute International, which provides training in operating drones, can teach a cop how to use a drone the size of a bathtub toy.

“If you’re concerned about it, maybe there’s a reason we should be flying over you, right?” said Douglas McDonald, the company’s director of special operations and president of a local chapter of the unmanned vehicle trade group. “But as soon as you lose your kid, get your car stolen or have marijuana growing out at your lake place that’s not yours, you’d probably want one of those flying overhead.”

Earlier this year, the Grand Forks Sheriff’s Department was provided its own drone by the university for $1 as part of a project to develop policies and procedures for law enforcement.

“We are not out there to abuse people’s rights, but at the same time we’re out there to protect public safety,” said Grand Forks Sheriff Robert Rost. “The public perception is that Big Brother is going to be snooping on them and that is not the case at all. It will not be misused.”

Still, not everyone is enthusiastic about drones. The Air Force has proposed expanding seven additional nautical miles of restricted air space near Devils Lake to conduct laser training with drones. Of the 43 public comments on the proposal, 42 opposed it, largely out of safety concerns and fears that it would interfere with commercial and general aviation. Nevertheless, the FAA approved the airspace expansion late last month.

Between the base and Grand Forks, Arnie Sevigny flies his own silent drone protest: a raggedy kite shaped like a jet fighter whipping in the wind 100 feet in the air and tied down with a stake on his property a few miles from the base. “No camera. No invasion of privacy,” Sevigny joked. “What do you need a drone for anyhow? They use the satellites they already have to see the head of a dime in your hand.”

And for all the assurances, there is much that isn’t said or revealed. Some of the equipment used by the university can’t be seen by the public because of federal privacy rules. Although legal, anyone photographing outside the base can find themselves being questioned by county, state and Air Force law enforcement. When asked how many times U.S. Border Protection has dispatched drones at the request of local police, a spokeswoman for the agency said it does not keep those figures.

Even Brossart doesn’t know what the drone that led to his family’s arrests saw. Despite demands made in court, the Predator’s footage has not been produced to his attorneys. “They don’t want to show what happened,” he said, “because it will show exactly what they did.”

A judge is expected to rule within days on whether the charges against Brossart, who has had a number of run-ins with authorities over the years, should be dismissed, in part, because the warrant-less use of the “spy plane” was part of a pattern of outrageous government conduct that violated Brossart’s Fourth Amendment rights.

With case law murky on the domestic use of drones, Brossart’s attorney, Bruce Quick, said the courts, Congress and state legislatures will likely have to address the issue. “It’s not just criminal defense attorneys. It’s just people concerned about civil liberties in general,” he said. “I don’t think a lot of us like the idea of our privacy being given away.”



Comments on: "Spies In The Sky" (54)

  1. “it will not be misused”

    I feel much better.


  2. goshawk3 said:

    This is really some scary stuff. No matter how much they try and make it look like a legitimate and peaceful tool. It is still and invasion of privacy and ‘is’ like “Big Brother!”

    There are several things in this article that attempt to lead readers toward a positive out-look but are not truthful. For example one is when the director Ryan Calo said “Think about it; they are inscrutable, flying, intelligent,” That is not totally true. They do ‘fly’ and would be hard to ‘investigate’ but to say they are “intelligent” is a bold face lie! Humans (prone to mistakes and misuse) are controlling these things. In fact using the most powerful computers in the world we have not been able to duplicate human intelligence.

    Then he says “They are really very difficult for the human mind to cleanly characterize.” What!?? I, and I’m sure most of you reading this, can “characterize” them a hundred different ways or more!


  3. Gar Swaffar said:

    Looks like a new sport shooting activity to me. Kinda like skeet only more active.


  4. Technology keeps evolving and there is nothing that can stop that. There was a time when men hand carried buckets to try and put out a house fire. Generals communicated with soldiers via hand held messages carried by a man on a horse. The evolution of technology is a great thing and we should embrace it, but just like anything else it can be used for good or bad. It all depends on whose using the technology. Years ago satellites were sent into space to spy on foreign nations to help keep us safer. Now those satellites spy on us as well. Phone tapping was allowed to catch criminals, but now phone taps are done all the time on us simple folks.

    All technology gives us great advantages in positive ways, but each time technology evolves we lose part of our privacy and freedom and that’s just a fact. If phones had never been invented they couldn’t now be tapped. No cars then no tracking devices. Drones are great technology, but just like all technology it depends on how it’s being used and by whom. If drones can help lessen the damage of forest fires that’s great. If they can patrol our borders and keep us safer from illegals that’s great. If they are used to peak into my house and see what I’m having for dinner…well…I want my fourth amendment rights. It all comes down to always sticking to the laws set fourth in our constitution and never swaying from them. One thing that should never evolve is our constitution. It was written perfectly the first time.

    So to sum up my lengthy dissertation; I love technology, but not nearly as much as I love our constitution.


    • goshawk3 said:

      Dave, you’re correct about the Science and Technology but, unfortunately, we will always have some in power that will use it against us. And when has the government up-held the Constitution? Only when it benefits ‘them’ to do so.


    • Dave,

      Great essay. I love the Constitution too but these radicals we have now are dangerous and they don’t give a rat’s petootie how they use this technology on us, to prey and spy on us.
      It is just unbelievable that we have come to this.


      • Pepp,

        I personally don’t think having radicals in office is anything new to this era. Since the first officials went into office there has been personal agendas, because most think they always know better than the person beside or before them. Hawk is correct that no politician has ever been committed to our constitution 100%; not a single one. As you well know the Bilderburg Group goes way back beyond our current officials and they have controlled many policies for many, many years under Demorat and Repuke administrations. The idea of the New World Order certainly isn’t new to Obama. They’ve just never gotten this close before. I just don’t think anyone before Obama has been so blatant about throwing it up in our face. I don’t trust any of them anymore…none.


        • Dave,

          I know these radicals have been infiltrating for years and years furtively. But, yeah, they are now showing their hand and their masks have come off. They are so dead fire sure they’ve got us now. Well, we’ll see about that. There are millions of armed citizens.


  5. Further viewing about drone attacks. Hat tip to Willibeaux.


    • Sorry Pepp, but I can’t pass this one up. Women can’t drive cars and we are letting them drive drones with hellfire missiles on them??? Oh Lord…. (-:


      • Sorry Daveroo,

        You’ve gone and done it now. You are now officially on my Shiite list.

        Women are much more capable of things that never entered your chauvinist mind. So there! 🙂


      • goshawk3 said:

        Ooooohhh … Dave,,What you said! LOL!


      • Dave, oooops…”hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”. Bet they designed hellfire missles on that premise 🙂


        • Bull,

          That’s right Dave did a big oops and he is now hiding out somewhere. Have not seen his sorry butt since.
          If he thinks Merlin is OK to be locked up with he must be smoking crack.


          • Can anyone really blame me for going into hiding???? Pepp has witchy powers ya know so I’ve constantly been relocating all day to make it harder for her spell to find me! My apologies Pepp, but I just can’t seem to help myself when trying to make jokes.


          • Davetherave,

            So here you are. Back at the scene of the crime. They say those who commit a crime have to go back to visit the carnage.

            You are right. I have witchy powers and I can cast a spell on you right there in Lexington sitting in front of my computer. So you’re not safe.
            Just ask the Hawk about those powers I have and he’ll tell ya.

            Ha, so you apologize now! Yeah, I know you can’t help yourself you shameless man.


    • Willi, great info. Ironic that they want to negotiate with the Taliban while we get the drones and survielance.


  6. Dave,

    btw, the Hawk is not in the dog house. I know how he thinks. And he thinks I’m capable of anything, including operating drones if need be. You are on your own in this one.


    • Dave will want an addition and a nice smoking lounge in that doghouse.
      Over and out.


      • Bull,

        He won’t be doing anything in that doghouse with Merlin in there. He won’t even have time to grab a smoke or his crack pipe. I can’t understand for the life of me why he thought it would be safe in the doghouse with Merlin. He’s lost his everlovin mind. 😀


        • Pepp, Does Merlin already have a whole dug? Dave made a big mistake. He should have remembered Jeremy from the Acorn Series, and known better. But rank sexism has no place in the public discourse. Why did he go to the dark side?


          • Bull,
            No Merlin has no hole in his doghouse. Dave is SOL! Yeah, right, he must have forgotten about Jeremy, the killer. He’s even talked to me about coming here for a visit and how would Merlin react to him. Then to ask to be put into the doghouse with Merlin? He’s lost his mind.

            Yes sir, rank sexism has no place in any discourse and certainly not on my blog. He should know better.

            It’s really hard to say why he went over to the dark side. Somethin must be cooking inside that crack pipe head of his. I’ve never, never, seen such rank sexism on my blog ever before. He will pay for this if he ever comes around again. LMAO!


        • Pepp, Hope you don’t have to bring in the Mossad to clean up this mess.


          • Bull,

            I sure hope not, but Lucie would be glad to send some of her Mossad friends over to straighten this out. Poor Daveroo, he wouldn’t know what’s up or down after a going over by those devils. They always mean business.


          • A weekly delivery of corn squeezins would be nice also bull!

            Bull…thanks a lot for bringing up the idea of flying Lucie in on this! Thanks pal…Does anyone have a sense of humor anymore?? 🙂


            • Dave, Me thinks you’ll need some squeezins for the pain. Humor has left the coliseum. I find that when I start a sentence with “sorry” it usually ends badly. It was right before the ‘good humor’ truck flattened me. But your mileage may vary.


          • Dave,

            Of course Bull had to suggest ways to help this problem that developed today. The Mossad would be perfect in taming that funny bone of yours.
            Of course we have a sense of humor. Why do you think we were having so much fun with this? This big, fat blooper of yours. 😀


  7. Pepp, Yikes they are actually cranking out drone pilots. And we know Obastid likes to keep public sector happily growing. (maybe its the public spy sector)


    • LOL! The Obastid most likely thinks he’s creating jobs in the private sector so he can point to these drone spies. Unfortunately we have enough stupids here in this country who would believe it.

      How funny, the public spy sector. I think you got that one nailed.


    • Bull,

      That is the only way he’ll get votes is through all of his giveaways. I received an email from a friend of mine two days ago with a video. These cell phones the Evil One is “giving” out, well apparently if you look at your cell phone bill there is a charge on there for these so called “free” cell phones. The video was of a young black woman who went into the same shop 6x and got 6 free cell phones at our expense. But, Oh, it’s free to them, right out of Obama’s stash as the Peggy the Moocher said back in 2008. What dummies. How do these people grow up thinking anything is free from the government? Hawk says it’s because they’ve never paid taxes their entire lives.


  8. And here I thought Obama was the only one stepping in shit. Dave Dave Dave. I’d say if you can see it,shoot it.


    • In regards to the drones,that is. The Obama ones will be easy to spot. They’ll have the idiot’s symbol on’em.


    • Yeah, Dave stepped into it big time. I wonder where he is?


      • Why do you think I own so many pair of cowboy boots?? I have a long history of stepping in cow poopy and I have to have many pairs while others are off being cleaned.


        • Daveroo,

          I must say I do see now quite clearly why you need so many boots. With your open mouth, insert foot, I imagine you wear them out faster than a cowboy kickin the cows. Cow poopy indeed. I’d like to see your face right now. I bet it’s full of cow poopy. So what do you do about that? 🙂


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