U.S. Air Force policy permits the incidental collection of domestic imagery by unmanned aerial systems (drones), but ordinarily would not allow targeted surveillance of a U.S. person. The Air Force policy was restated in a newly reissued instruction on oversight of Air Force intelligence.
“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,” the instruction stated.
On the other hand, “Collected imagery may incidentally include US persons or private property without consent.”
“Collecting information on specific targets inside the US raises policy and legal concerns that require careful consideration, analysis and coordination with legal counsel. Therefore, Air Force components should use domestic imagery only when there is a justifiable need to do so, and then only IAW [in accordance with] EO 12333, the National Security Act of 1947, as amended, DoD 5240.1-R, and this instruction,” it said.
Legally valid requirements for domestic imagery, the instruction said, include surveillance of natural disasters, environmental studies, system testing and training, and also counterintelligence and security-related vulnerability assessments. Air Force units are authorized to acquire domestic commercial imagery for such validated purposes.
However, “Air Force intelligence components must not conduct or give the appearance of conducting collection, exploitation or dissemination of commercial imagery or imagery associated products for other than approved mission purposes.” See “Oversight of Intelligence Activities,” Air Force Instruction 14-104, April 23, 2012.
Another new Air Force Instruction deals with the basic operation of Small Unmanned Aerial Systems in domestic and foreign environments. Among other things, it recommends caution in the use of non-uniformed personnel in conducting drone combat missions.
“To ensure the noncombatant status of civilians and contractors is not jeopardized, commanders shall consult with their servicing judge advocate office for guidance before using civilian or contractor personnel in combat operations or other missions involving direct participation in hostilities,” the instruction advised. See “Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Operations,” Air Force Instruction 11-502, volume 3, April 26, 2012.
In its new mark of the FY2013 defense authorization bill, the House Armed Services Committee is proposing to provide the Air Force with even more money than it requested for its Predator and Reaper drone programs. See “Congress Funds Killer Drones the Air Force Says It Can’t Handle” by Spencer Ackerman, Wired Danger Room, May 7, 2012.