(CNSNews.com) – Three witnesses, all of them U.S. government officials, warned Congress on Thursday about the looming threats posed by unmanned aircraft systems or drones, including attacks on crowded places and airports.
“What we know is that the threat posed by UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) is widespread across the country, and it is critical that our partners have the authority to help protect the homeland in addition to TSA getting the authority to critically protect the transportation sector, said Samantha Vinograd, an acting assistant secretary for counter-terrorism and threat Prevention at the Department of Homeland Security.
Vinograd told the committee that U.S. Customs and Border Protection have detected more than 8,000 illegal cross-border drone flights at the southern border just since August 2021. And she said there have been 2000 sightings of drones in and around airports since 2021, with 64 aircraft, four of them commercial flights, having to take evasive actions.
Brad Wiegmann, the deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s National Security Division, said the threat posed by drones is “very significant…given the easy ability to buy a drone commercially.
“It’s easy to get. They’re easy — very easy to use and not that difficult to weaponize for — as we’ve talked about, and that’s what we’re seeing some of already.
“So the FBI director predicted a few years ago that we would see an attack, a drone attack on a mass gathering. Happily, we haven’t seen one yet, but I think it’s a matter of time until we do see that type of misuse of drones for an attack in the United States,” Wiegmann said.
In 2018, Congress passed a bill giving the government new authorities to counter the threats posed by UAS, but those authorities will expire in October if Congress doesn’t act. Both Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee agreed on the need to “reauthorize and strengthen counter-UAS authorities,” as Committee Chair Gary Peters (D-Mich.) put it.
“If we do not act,” Peters said, “it could only be a matter of time before someone who is recklessly operating this technology causes an accident that can have catastrophic effects. And as we work to avoid unintentional disasters, we must also account for the escalating threat of weaponized drones from terrorist and criminal organizations who could launch domestic drone attacks on mass gatherings, high profile landmarks and buildings, or federal property.
“This includes foreign adversaries who have deployed drones in conflicts abroad and could have the capability to deploy them here in the United States as well. We must also be prepared to counter drones operated by criminal organizations that are reportedly using UAS for illegal activities including trafficking illicit drugs across our borders.”
Ranking member Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said the current anti-drone measures couldn’t expire at a worse time:
“Cartels and transnational criminal organizations use drones to smuggle drugs and surveil US law enforcement in furtherance of illicit cross-border activity. These cartels have also begun to weaponize drones in order to commit attacks.
“So far these attacks, as far as we know, have been in Mexico, but I think weaponized drones along the border are now an emerging threat. To give you a sense of the scale of the problem in joint testimony before the House Committee on Homeland Security, in March, representatives from DHS said that in a previous five-month period, CBP identified more than 30,000 individual flights near or at the southern border where half of those flights violated FAA regulations.
“Again, we know that at a minimum, these drones were used for surveilling our US law enforcement efforts and for smuggling drugs into the country, including fentanyl, the deadly synthetic opioid. Relatively small amounts of it can kill hundreds of thousands, millions of people. So it’s subject to being smuggled in — in relatively small drones.”
The legislation under consideration would expand detection and mitigation technology to state and local authorities, and training is a big part of it.
Vinograd told the committee that “DHS cannot be everywhere. We rely…on state, local, tribal and territorial partners to help us protect and to advance a variety of DHS missions. If (state-local-territorial) partners are granted this authority, they can help prevent catastrophic attacks against — against mass gatherings of a variety of size and in a variety of venues.”
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