By Ian Simpson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Justice should develop guidelines on the use of its $4.9 million drone and unmanned aircraft program in the face of privacy concerns, the department's watchdog said on Thursday.
The interim report from the department's inspector general comes amid criticism from civil rights groups over President Barack Obama's use of domestic surveillance, from unmanned aircraft to monitoring of Americans' phone records.
Four Justice Department units spent $3.7 million from 2004 through May this year on drones, with the Federal Bureau of Investigation accounting for more than 80 percent of the purchases, the report on the department's drone use and policies said.
The units, which include the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Marshals Service, had bought the drone aircraft for testing or use.
As of May, the FBI was the only one to use drones, and ATF planned to use them, the report said. The DEA planned to give its aircraft to another agency, and the Marshals Service planned to destroy its aircraft because it is obsolete and not operable.
The drone aircraft are classified as "small," or weighing less than 55 pounds (25 kg). None of the unmanned aircraft were armed or carried "releasable projectiles," the report said.
The Justice Department has awarded another $1.2 million in grants to a total of seven law enforcement agencies and non-profit groups to use or test drones.
They included police departments in Gadsden, Alabama; Miami-Dade County, Florida; North Little Rock, Arkansas; and the Sheriff's Office in San Mateo County, California, which later declined the award, the inspector general said.
'UNIQUE CONCERNS ABOUT PRIVACY'
It also granted money to researchers at Eastern Kentucky University; the Center for Rural Development in Hazard, Kentucky; and the Sheriffs' Association of Texas.
The FBI and ATF have developed or are developing guidelines on operating drones. They do not believe they need special privacy protocols since there was no practical difference between how unmanned and manned aircraft collect evidence, the report said.
But the inspector general's report urged the Justice Department to develop a uniform approach to drone use, given the aircraft's technological capabilities and the current patchwork of protocols.
Drones "can be used in close proximity to a home and, with longer-lasting power systems, may be capable of flying for several hours or even days at a time, raising unique concerns about privacy and the collection of evidence," it said.
The Justice Department had agreed with all eight of the inspector general's recommendations on creating drone policies, including on privacy, monitoring of unmanned aircraft grants and improved coordination between funding recipients and the department's law enforcement units, it said.
"No agency, including the FBI, should deploy domestic surveillance drones without first having strong privacy guidelines in place," Jay Staley, senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a written statement released in response to the report.
"We're encouraged by the inspector general's recognition that drones have created a need for privacy policies covering aerial surveillance. We urge the Justice Department to make good on its plans to develop privacy rules that protect Americans from another mass surveillance technology," Staley said.
FBI Director Robert Mueller told the Senate Judiciary Committee in June that the United States used drones in some limited law enforcement situations. The FBI said later that unmanned aircraft were only used to monitor stationary subjects and to avoid serious risk to law officers.
(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Scott Malone, Edith Honan and Richard Chang)