Far from the battlefields of Afghanistan, a Predator drone was summoned into action last year to spy on a North Dakota farmer who allegedly refused to return a half-dozen of his neighbor’s cows that had strayed onto his pastures.
The farmer had become engaged in a standoff with the Grand Forks police SWAT team and the sheriff’s department. So the local authorities decided to call on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to deploy a multimillion-dollar, unarmed drone to surveil the farmer and his family.
The little-noticed August 2011 incident at the Lakota, N.D., ranch, which ended peacefully, was a watershed moment for Americans. It was one of the first known times an unmanned aerial vehicle owned by the U.S. government was used in local police work.
Since then, The Washington Guardian has confirmed, DHS and its Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency have deployed drones — originally bought to guard America’s borders — to assist local law enforcement and other federal agencies on several occasions.
The practice is raising questions inside and outside government about whether federal officials may be creating an ad-hoc, loan-a-drone program without formal rules for engagement, privacy protection or taxpayer reimbursements. The drones used by CBP can cost $15 million to $34 million each, and have hourly operational costs as well.
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