A spokesman for U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) has provided statements to publications in New Hampshire and Oregon indicating that information regarding domestic drone activities provided by Public Intelligence is inaccurate, despite confirmations from the offices of two U.S. Senators. Following our publication last week of a map of current and proposed Department of Defense drone activities within the U.S., several journalists with local publications around the country wrote articles regarding drone activities that were listed in their area. David Brooks of the Nashua Telegraph wrote about the listing of New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington as the site of a USSOCOM drone activity involving small unmanned aerial vehicles including the Raven and Wasp. Corey Pein of the Willamette Week wrote about a planned USSOCOM drone activity in Portland that was listed as utilizing the same types of drones.
When each of these reporters contacted USSOCOM for information on the drone activities in their area, a spokesman stated that the information provided in our map, which was constructed from several public U.S. Air Force presentations from 2010 and 2011, was incorrect. The spokesman, deputy public affairs officer Ken McGraw, went so far as to tell the Willamette Week that “U.S. Special Operations Command does not have nor will it have [a drone] base in Portland.” McGraw provided the Nashua Telegraph with a nearly identical statement that USSOCOM “does not have a [drone] base in Mt. Washington” and added that “US Special Operations Command does not issue the Raven or Wasp. Those two UAVs are Army pieces of equipment.”
Both of the statements provided by USSOCOM have now been found to be demonstrably false following further investigation of public documents and confirmations of drone activities from the offices of two U.S. Senators. In New Hampshire, a local newspaper has now confirmed with the office of Senator Kelly Ayotte that in 2010, Navy Special Operations Forces utilized areas around Mt. Washington to conduct training operations using Wasp and Raven drones. David Brooks of the Nashua Telegraph was further able to confirm via Army Lt. Col. James Gregory that similar exercises were also conducted in 2009 using the same types of drones.
In Oregon, the Willamette Week was able to confirm with the office of Sen. Ron Wyden that drones are currently stored in Portland for several military units in the area. Though the location is not primarily used as a launch site, the spokesman for Sen. Wyden’s office stated that “in the event of a natural disaster or other legitimate need” drones could be flown out of Portland. An April 2012 report to Congress on the DoD’s use of drones lists 110 sites around the country that are described as “potential UAS [unmanned aircraft systems] basing locations” along with the proposed drones that will be flown at each of the locations. The list includes several sites in Oregon, including Portland which is specifically listed as being under the control of USSOCOM and utilizing Wasp, Raven and Puma AE drones.
While some of the confusion surrounding the military’s domestic use of drones is likely due to terminological issues, such as what constitutes a drone base as opposed to an activity, these issues should not prevent the military from providing accurate information when queried by members of the press. In each of the statements provided by USSOCOM, their involvement in domestic drone activities is denied or misrepresented, preventing any meaningful exchange from taking place. If the military wishes to counter controversy from the increasing integration of drones into domestic airspace, then it may help to not make statements to press that are inaccurate or disproved by publicly available congressional reports.