The Government is Closed, But Are Drones Still Flying?

By Arthur Holland Michel

At the Center for the Study of the Drone, the first question we asked when we received news of the U.S. government shutdown was, “How will the shutdown affect U.S. government drone use, both abroad and domestically?” Cyril Almeida, a Pakistani journalist, speaking for the Northern Waziristan province, asked on Twitter whether the U.S. would continue to carry out drone operations over Pakistan. In response, Robert Mackey wrote a blog post for the New York Times explaining that, no, drone operations in Pakistan would in all probability continue as normal. However, the secrecy of drone operations, domestic and foreign, make it quite difficult to determine whether all drone use will continue as before.

In his blog post, Mackey only confirms that the Air Force will continue its drone operations.  But U.S. drone operations in Pakistan are run by the C.I.A, not the Air Force. Since these C.I.A operations are secret, the C.I.A will not report whether these operations have stopped due to the shutdown. The secrecy of drone operations make it very difficult to determine how exactly they have been affected by the shutdown.

While military operations will remain unaffected by the shutdown, there is evidence that U.S. intelligence operations, including C.I.A drone operations, may not be happening at pre-shutdown levels. Four days before it happened, Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, explained that a government shutdown would “cripple our intelligence community.” On the day that the government closures came into effect, Chuck Hagel, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, told reporters in South Korea that the widespread furloughs cast a “dark cloud of uncertainty” over U.S. “missions around the world.”

Of course, the country’s national security services cannot speak specifically about which operations have been called off as a result of the shutdown. But there have been cuts to intelligence operations. In a statement to reporters, Shawn Turner, the chief spokesperson for the Director of National Intelligence explained that “the Intelligence Community’s ability to identify threats and provide information for a broad set of national security decisions will be diminished for the duration [of the shutdown].” Turner stressed that “the immediate and significant reduction in employees on the job means that we will assume greater risk and our ability to support emerging intelligence requirements will be curtailed.”

On the domestic front, the FBI, which has used surveillance drones ten times since 2006, has been been one of the agencies hit hardest by the government shutdown. Nevertheless, according to the White House office of Management and Budget, the FBI will “continue existing investigations, open new investigations, and respond to all contingencies which might arise during a lapse of appropriations.” The FBI has not announced whether any current investigations are making use of drones.

Customs and Border Protection maintains a significant fleet of surveillance drones. According to NBC News, as of October 2, the second day of the shutdown, CBP surveillance helicopters were continuing to fly over the U.S.-Mexico border. According to NBC, the helicopters have not been grounded as they are considered “essential to national security.” The CBP drones serve a similar role to the surveillance helicopters; however, there is no information about whether or not CBP drones are in use. When we contacted the CPB press office, an automated voice message informed us that, “Due to lapse of appropriation and the emergency furlough, our center is temporarily closed.”

(Photo Credit: Veronique De Viguerie/The Times)



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Veronique De Viguerie, de The Times