The Incidental Anti-Drug Spying on a White SUV

I hinted at this earlier, but it’s worth making explicit. In his reporting from Holloman Air Force Base, Mark Mazzetti revealed that the Air Force practices drone targeting on civilian traffic driving close to the base.

Holloman sits on almost 60,000 acres of desert badlands, near jagged hills that are frosted with snow for several months of the year — a perfect training ground for pilots who will fly Predators and Reapers over the similarly hostile terrain of Afghanistan. When I visited the base earlier this year with a small group of reporters, we were taken into a command post where a large flat-screen television was broadcasting a video feed from a drone flying overhead. It took a few seconds to figure out exactly what we were looking at. A white S.U.V. traveling along a highway adjacent to the base came into the cross hairs in the center of the screen and was tracked as it headed south along the desert road. When the S.U.V. drove out of the picture, the drone began following another car.

“Wait, you guys practice tracking enemies by using civilian cars?” a reporter asked. One Air Force officer responded that this was only a training mission, and then the group was quickly hustled out of the room.

What Mazzetti has described is a visual representation of the practice revealed in a new Air Force directive published by Secrecy News earlier this year–that the Air Force may collect imagery on US persons as part of training so long as it is “incidental.”

9.6.1. Air Force units with weapon system video and tactical ISR capabilities may collect imagery during formal and continuation training missions as long as the collected imagery is not for the purpose of obtaining information about specific US persons or private property. Collected imagery may incidentally include US persons or private property without consent. Imagery may not be collected for the purpose of gathering any specific information about a US person or private entity, without consent, nor may stored imagery be retrievable by reference to US person identifiers.

9.6.2. Air Force Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) operations, exercise and training missions will not conduct nonconsensual surveillance on specifically identified US persons, unless expressly approved by the Secretary of Defense, consistent with US law and regulations. Civil law enforcement agencies, such as the US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the US Coast Guard, will control any such data collected. [my emphasis]

The Air Force restricts the distribution of information collected “incidentally” (as much–other parts of the Directive makes clear–because it wants to hide its intelligence capabilities as because of any squeamishness about privacy).

Distribution of Domestic Imagery. Distribution of domestic imagery to parties other than those identified in the approved PUM, DIR or MFR is prohibited, unless the recipient is reasonably perceived to have a specific, lawful governmental function requiring it IAW paragraph 11.4. Unless otherwise approved, domestic imagery must be withheld from all general access database systems (e.g., Intelink).

But that doesn’t seem to rule out sharing with the National Counterterrorism Center (which after all, may now access any database it deems to have a counterterrorism interest), which can then cross reference that intelligence with any other government database.

And the Air Force directive specifically permits the sharing of information regarding violations of US or local laws.

11.12.2.1. Violations of US federal law. Incidentally acquired information reasonably believed to indicate a violation of federal law shall be provided to appropriate federal law enforcement officials through AFOSI channels.

Note where Holloman (and the likely highway in question) is located: right on a highway headed north from Ciudad Juarez, presumably a drug trafficking route.

Effectively, these “training” activities mean we’re using military drones inside the US to “incidentally” collect intelligence for the drug war, among other things. I’ve long suggested the first use of a lethal drone strike in the US will claim to have targeted cartel trafficking. I just didn’t yet have confirmation they’re effectively already doing anti-drug surveillance inside the US with drones.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

24 replies
  1. MadDog says:

    I wonder if the DEA gets a live feed of Predator Full Motion video of all Predator drone “training” flights from Holloman Air Force Base.

    I also wonder if the DEA lends a hand in designing the routes used in those Predator drone “training” flights from Holloman Air Force Base.

    And then there are the folks at ICE…

  2. rosalind says:

    in a recent conversation with a family member who works in & around the defense industry about the large drone that crashed a while back, he said “oh yeah, I saw that drone in development about ten years ago. they mapped all of California with it to test it out.”

  3. GKJames says:

    No way the national security apparatus — along with militarized law enforcement — can resist the temptation. Signature strikes on Interstate 25 are not a far-fetched notion.

  4. rosalind says:

    @emptywheel: think ya hit a nerve with drunky the drone, his usual humor was lacking in your twitter exchanges. perhaps the laser focus of his drone world tends to obscure the real-world ramifications of his technology that’s being launched into the hemispheres without the consent of the governed (we the map-ees).

  5. P J Evans says:

    US70 through Holloman has a traffic light at each end of that section of road, to stop traffic when they’re doing a missile test. It’s probably one of the places they’re watching traffic, because there’s a lot of it, and it isn’t going anyplace but into Holloman or all the way across.

  6. tjallen says:

    Wonder if plans are in place to announce unintended US civilian deaths? Women and children? Because based on their success rate in killing unarmed civilians, women and children in other countries, surely they will kill US civilians several times before/while taking out an alleged drug runner. First they will call them drug runners, then back off to illegal immigrants and when the furore dies down, will admit they were John and Mary from Ft. Worth, who were deemed suspicious looking.

  7. emptywheel says:

    @P J Evans: Does it?

    I’m really curious how they get tasked to track stuff. Cause selectively tracking certain cars might well be affirmative intelligence.

    Any sense how much of that traffic comes through from Mexico?

  8. P J Evans says:

    @emptywheel:
    I don’t know – I was westbound, toward Las Cruces and Los Angeles. It’s pretty much a secondary highway, serving mostly farm towns and smaller cities, as it zigzags across states (Arizona to Arkansas). I’d expect migrant farm workers might use it, because it doesn’t hit big cities, and it might be helpful for drug dealers, but there are a lot of sections where it’s a long way from anything.

  9. Saul Tannenbaum says:

    It’s long been a feature of driving certain Nevada highways near the Nellis AFB and the Tonopah Test Range that you could find yourself as a car-of-interest from planes using you for training exercises. (And, for those without a good mental map of Nevada in your heads, that’s Area 51 in between Nellis and Tonopah which, as a skunkworks test bed, generates its own set of odd encounters between cars/people and presumed experimental aircraft.)

  10. Pajarito says:

    Its a cliche image now, but once when I was driving a dirt road in the Sonoran Desert of AZ, not far from Davis Monthan Airbase, I looked in the rear view mirror and there was an AH-64 Apache attack helicopter on my tail. I was in a small SUV. The chopper was about 100′ back, with rotors barely missing the Saguaros. They matched me speed and turn for turn. Bet it was great fun for the warrant officers flying it. Pretty creepy knowing it had eyesight-aimed 30mm cannon and those hellfire missles. Army chopper, civilian road, BLM land…

  11. Pajarito says:

    US 70 is an east-west highway that crosses the Tularosa Basin, between Alamogordo and Las Cruces, NM. It passes Holloman AFB and transits through the U.S. Army White Sands Missile range, a huge expanse of desert basin with craggy mountains on either side.

    Do we now have to paint “Don’t Shoot, Civilian” on top of the car?

  12. William Wagner says:

    Do you suppose that TPTB have yet spotted that little town of Weed, NM 25 miles east of HAFB??

  13. P J Evans says:

    @Pajarito:

    I knew a biologist who made trips to Central America to collect (usually living) specimens. He found it helpful, when crossing borders, to put the largest, or most obviously dangerous, ones on top.

  14. Saul Tannenbaum says:

    I didn’t think to mention this in my earlier comment, but Area 51 has been the center of attention of extraordinary, well, let’s call it citizen-based counter-intelligence. I’m not talking about the UFO folks, I’m talking about folks who have, for example, obsessively documented the secret commuter air flights that run from McCarren Airport in Las Vegas to Groom Lake (aka Area 51), taking pictures, counting cars in parking lots, and listening into air traffic control radio traffic to help understand what’s going on. There are also folks who track the ongoing military exercises in the area help in plane spotting.

    For one example, look at: http://www.dreamlandresort.com/

    There’s a lot to learn about the actual operations of the secret state and it’s a really interesting way to start reverse engineering what our government is up to.

  15. thatvisionthing says:

    @MadDog: I was watching a youtube — actually before the youtube, the ad was for a smartphone app for a really cool toy helicopter/drone camera that you control with your smartphone. Kid standing in the middle of a lonely desert highway with his smartphone controlling his drone filming right down the white line.

    I think it must be this app: http://blog.laptopmag.com/ar-drone-takes-remote-control-to-a-new-level

    Lots of youtubes of the drone movies, search iphone ipad drone helicopter ar parrot… some combination of those terms.

  16. thatvisionthing says:

    @emptywheel: I was watching a Daniel Ellsberg youtube recently, an October 2002 talk he gave when his book Secrets was coming out, right as Bush was ramping up for the Iraq invasion, deja vu. He was talking about a drone we were secretly using over China in 1964, and it had come down:

    http://youtu.be/OF8nuvGyngU?t=33m58s

    McNaughton comes running in one morning from McNamara’s office just down the hall — he always ran back and forth, that was his — very long legs — and he didn’t want military, the generals, to see this assistant secretary running to his boss, so he would sort of stride, sort of a Groucho Marx — very fast, power walking, sort of. But on this case actually I think he was running. And he came in and he said, “McNamara” — it was about 5 to 8. He said, “McNamara has a press conference coming at 8:30. A Blue Springs drone has just gone down over China.”

    Now, Blue Springs was a code name for a covert operation of reconnaissance drones, which are unmanned photographic vehicles, of the kind we’re sending over Iraq now, quite openly, and all over the place. But in fact the military was operating something like that over Washington the other day because of the sniper. Good idea technically, but we are definitely edging into that position of using the military on domestic police work, which means eroding, getting rid of the Posse Comitatus Act, which says the U.S. military is not for use against U.S. citizens. …we’re in a situation where we’re moving very fast toward using the military in general for police work in this country. Okay. Getting aside from the point here a little bit.

    Blue Springs drone had gone down. Now in those days we didn’t admit we were flying reconnaissance planes over sovereign, other countries, like the U-2. So he says, “Okay, a Blue Springs plane has gone down. McNamara has to meet the press at 8:30. We have ten minutes to give him six alternative lies.”

    So he gave me — he threw at me practically, a yellow pad. He took a yellow pad. We sat at opposite sides of his desk and we wrote lies as fast as we could. We didn’t even have time to confer with each other. “Have you got this one, or are we repeating –” We just wrote real fast. Now, unmanned (thinking) — okay, it was a weather plane, you know, off course — that one had a lot of bad history, because that’s what we said about the U-2 when it went down over Russia. And unfortunately on that occasion they got the pilot and the photographic plane, so after Eisenhower had said it was a weather plane, off course, Kruschchev humiliated him with the truth. But anyway, you know, put it on the list, here, you know, might work this time.

    So I said to McNaughton, “Uh, does this thing have US markings on it?” McNaughton doesn’t even look up. He says, “Who knows, who knows…” And, (thinking) it was a Chinese Nationalist plane from Taiwan. It was a… You know, various things.

    So we give him the list. He grabs it from me, runs down the hall, and he comes back about ten minutes later, and he says, “Okay, McNamara likes this. He wants four more. We have five minutes.” Wrote more lies. They’re a little harder to get, at this point, they’re coming slower. And I said, “You know, why doesn’t he just say ‘No comment’?” He says, “McNamara won’t say ‘No comment’ to the press.”

    You know, McNamara knew everything, had all the statistics at his fingertips. He waved them into existence. He sort of made them up as he went along, actually, but it sounded very precise. He was sort of like the William F. Buckley … has all these facts that he makes up. So, he won’t say “No comment.”

    So as McNaughton was going out the door again, I said, “Listen, I really want to press this, give it one more chance here. Try on him again, ‘No comment,'” which I had suggested the first time to him, I said, “because they’re tired — they may find it out real fast — but the press is tired of being lied to, I think.” This was ’64. They were — they were tired already. They had a hard time coming up. But, “Give it a try.”

    So he came back later and he said, to his amazement, he said McNamara had said “No comment” when the question came up. And a reporter came into our office and said, “Will you tell your boss that was really great this morning,” you know, “that he said ‘No comment.'”

    His point was that the press willingly bought into the secrecy game and helped the administration spin lies. About drones. In 1964.

    The more things change…

  17. thatvisionthing says:

    The more things change…

    Ellsberg was reading a 2002 Doonesbury cartoon to his audience, of a White House press conference:

    http://youtu.be/OF8nuvGyngU?t=22m45s

    Ellsberg, holding up newspaper: This is October 19th, Saturday, and I didn’t see it right away, where, I forget the name of this reporter in the Doonesbury strip, he’s saying in a press conference at the White House,”Ari, could you go over it one more time? Why war with Saddam, exactly? I mean, there’s no real Al Qaeda link.” As the CIA has been saying. “He doesn’t have nukes, his army’s been decimated, and he hasn’t even been able to shoot down a single U.S. jet.” Talking there about the 900 or so raids we’ve made over Viet– uh, Iraq. “Vietnam” I said. For years in Vietnam we said “Korea,” people of my generation. (laughter) They do meld together a little bit.

  18. freepatriot says:

    high everybody
    just droppin in to share my Area 51 story
    I was travelin down the highway near Area 51 when my fan belt broke and my radiator blew out. I sat there for about 5 minutes when two guys came along, offered to tow my truck back to their shop (about 10 miles down the road). They sold me a radiator at a really low price(less than half of what I would have paid at home), and they even installed it for me
    I didn’t think the two guys looked like good Samaritans, more like retired military types. I was on the road again in less than an hour
    I don’t subscribe to conspiracy theories, but those guys wanted me out of the area fast. Make of it what you will, but it seemed awful coincidental to me
    so there’s that …

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