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Illegal drone flights risk catastrophic harm to US airports and border security, a threat that will worsen if Congress doesn’t act quickly to extend and expand federal authorities to combat the devices, administration officials told lawmakers.
Officials from the Department of Homeland Security, Justice Department, and Federal Aviation Administration, appearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Thursday, stressed the urgency of taking up the Biden administration’s proposed legislation on countering unmanned aerial systems, or drones. Current federal authorities expire in October.
Committee Chairman Gary Peters (D-Mich.) said he plans to introduce a bill with Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). “A malicious actor could deploy UAS to cause a catastrophic incident at any time, and we cannot and must not wait for that incident to occur,” Peters said.
Senators on both sides of the aisle said they were committed to moving quickly on the matter, though some indicated they had concerns with parts of the proposal the Biden administration unveiled in April.
US officials have detected 8,000 illegal cross-border drone flights at the US-Mexico line since August 2021, said Samantha Vinograd, DHS’s acting assistant secretary for counterterrorism and threat prevention. Criminal organizations use drones to monitor law enforcement at the border and transport narcotics and contraband, she said.
Vinograd noted another 2,000 drone sightings near airports since last year and said dozens of those incidents caused pilots to take “evasive actions.”
The administration is pushing a bill that would give the Transportation Security Administration new authorities to detect and disrupt drones proactively around airports. It also includes new detection authorities for state and local law enforcement and a pilot program for some state and local law enforcement to disrupt drone flights, with federal oversight.
“The plan, including the specific legislative proposal we have shared with Congress, will be groundbreaking in improving our defenses against the exploitation of UAS for inappropriate or dangerous purposes,” White House Homeland Security adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall said in a statement Thursday.
Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) questioned why the proposal would make many authorities permanent, rather than including a sunset clause. “Why shouldn’t we all be required to revisit the broad authorities being granted in this bill in a few years?” he asked.
Vinograd said the proposed pilot program wouldn’t be permanent but that expiration dates on other provisions could be disruptive. The current sunset clause on authorities makes it difficult to do multiyear planning, she said.
Johnson said he was frustrated with the Biden administration’s proposal’s slow planned rollout of the pilot program with state and local law enforcement.
“Let’s not have a piece of legislation that’s too little too late,” he said.
Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) suggested the legislation should specify drone protections for large venues, including sports stadiums — a position the NFL and other organizations supported in a letter Thursday. FAA Deputy Associate Administrator Tonya Coultas said the agency was open to that.
Other lawmakers, including Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Rick Scott (R-Fla.), took issue with the federal government’s purchases of Chinese-manufactured drones, citing security threats.
DHS is prohibited from buying Chinese drones but has obtained a waiver in some cases, which Vinograd said she couldn’t discuss in a public hearing. Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brad Wiegmann, in the department’s National Security Division, said the agency is eager to move away from Chinese-made drones as soon as more other options become available.
Portman noted that a Senate-passed competition bill (S. 1260) includes a prohibition on government purchases of Chinese-made drones. He said he would seek to add the requirement to a reauthorization package if the competition legislation fails to become law.
To contact the reporter on this story: Ellen M. Gilmer in Washington at email@example.com