For the First Time, Predator Drones Participate in Civilian Arrests on U.S. Soil

A Customs and Border Protection Predator B (or MQ-9 Reaper)

A somewhat strange story emerged yesterday involving an extremist antigovernment group, a North Dakota sheriff's office, and six missing cows, but there's a much larger story behind this brief legal tangle between local law enforcement and the Brossart family of Nelson Country. When Alex, Thomas and Jacob Brossart were arrested on their farm back in June after allegedly chasing the local Sheriff off their property with rifles, they became the first known U.S. citizens to be arrested on American soil with the help of a Predator drone, Stars and Stripes reports.

They will not, however, be the last. Most U.S. citizens are aware that US. Customs and Border Protection owns and operates a handful of aerial drones along the nation's northern and southern borders (eight Predators to be exact), but when Congress authorized the use of drones along the borders in 2005 it was thought that they would be used strictly to curb illegal immigration and to detect smuggling routes.

But a provision allowing for "interior law enforcement support" is being given fairly liberal interpretation by both the Customs and Border Protection crews that operate the drones and local law enforcement that sometimes wants to borrow CBP's aerial assets. Local police in North Dakota say they've called upon the two Predators operating out of Grand Forks Air Force Base at least two dozen times since June.

These drones are unarmed Predator B drones (known as MQ-9 Reapers elsewhere in the operational lingo), the same "hunter/killer" model employed across the globe in the War on Terror (but without the Hellfire missiles). They are being used for surveillance and situational awareness only, law enforcement officials say. But the fact that they're being used at all--and especially without anyone higher up the chain of command acknowledging that local police have access to and are using Predator drones routinely--stirs up all kinds of privacy issues. As Stripes notes, it also skirts the Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibits the U.S. military from taking on a police role within the United States.

In the case of the Brossart boys, apparently the sheriff showed up on their place with search warrant in hand seeking access to the family's land to search for six missing cows thought to be on the premises. The Brossarts--who reportedly are not huge fans of the federal government in general and belong to an antigovernment group that the FBI considers extremist--brandished rifles and allegedly ordered the sheriff off the property. The sheriff complied, but then asked for support from the nearby drone unit, which happened to have a Predator in the air returning from a routine recon of the U.S.-Canada border.

Local law used the drone to keep an eye on the Brossart place overnight and the next day were able to determine via the drone footage that the three Brossarts in question were out on the property and unarmed (there's a more thorough account of this if you click through to the Stripes piece). All said, the local police were able to sweep in and arrest the Brossarts without firing a shot or ending up in some kind of armed standoff.

To local law enforcement, it's a good story about technology working to avoid violent confrontations and assist cops in their day-to-day serving and protecting. But it's also troubling. From a privacy standpoint, the use of military surveillance drones over American cities is fraught with issues. Then there's the fact that--up until now--very few people seem to have any idea this is going on. The government peering into your backyard, Big Brother is watching, etc. etc.--it's the kind of thing that's going to have to be talked about as technologies like drone aircraft become more ubiquitous, both abroad and at home.

Oh, and the six cows were located by police. No word on whether the Predators were scrambled for that part of the operation.