The Trump administration is developing a second set of proposed legislative authorities to allow relevant federal departments and agencies the ability to counter unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in domestic airspace, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said on Tuesday.

Last year the government proposed legislation to Congress to provide federal authorities to counter UAS threats, Nielsen said. “We currently lack the authorities needed to counter threats from unmanned aircraft systems,” she said in her prepared remarks to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Kirstjen Nielsen being sworn  in as the new DHS Secretary on Dec. 6. Photo: DHS.
Kirstjen Nielsen being sworn in as the new DHS Secretary on Dec. 6. Photo: DHS.

“After extensive discussions,” the administration is reworking the proposal for Congress, which will be delivered shortly, Nielsen said in written remarks prepared for the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“In the meantime, I am eager to share our concerns in a classified setting, which we recently did with the House Homeland Security Committee,” Nielsen said. “I expect to have the legislative proposal to you in the next few weeks, and I urge the committee to help champion efforts to resolve this challenge.”

Current laws prohibit the downing of aircraft, including drones, in the National Airspace System. Anh Duong, program executive officer at the Science and Technology Directorate at the Department of Homeland Security, last fall said at an industry day that laws for counter-UAS technologies need to be updated because “the playing field for drones may tilt to the bad guys” because they don’t have to worry about the laws.

Duong mentioned that that DHS was part of an interagency effort looking at drones, including changing laws for counter-UAS systems.

Federal, state and local officials have raised concerns about UAS systems over a number of issues, including potential use in terrorist attacks, interference with commercial aircraft, and unauthorized surveillance of sensitive sites.

Nielsen’s written statement said, “We know that terrorists are using drones to conduct aerial attacks to conduct aerial attacks in conflict zones, and already we have seen aspiring terrorists attempt to use them in attacks outside the conflict zone. This is a very serious concern for the department.” In her prepared remarks, she told the panel DHS is concerned that UAS can be used for surveillance and smuggling of illegal goods into the U.S.

Duong said last fall that there has been a lot of development of counter-UAS systems, noting though that that these are primarily for military use. She added that there hasn’t been much testing of counter-UAS solutions in homeland security environments.

Prior to Nielsen’s testimony yesterday morning, DHS and the Justice Department released a joint report showing that 402, or 73 percent, of the individuals convicted of international terrorism charges in federal courts between Sept. 11, 2001, and Dec. 31, 2016, were born outside the U.S. Of the 549 total that were convicted on these charges in U.S. federal courts, 254 were not U.S. citizens, 148 were foreign born, naturalized, and received U.S. citizenship, and 147 were U.S. citizens by birth.

The report, which was due last September, was required under Section 11 of President Donald Trump’s Executive Order 13780 last March entitled Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement that the report is “further proof that we need to pass legislation expeditiously to strengthen our borders and enforce our existing laws.”

In a separate statement, Reps. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the ranking members respectively of the House Homeland Security and Judiciary Committees, called the new report “misleading,” saying it “fails to consider the reality that homegrown extremists have killed more Americans than foreign terrorists since 9-11. Domestic terror is on the rise, and yet, the Trump administration has repeatedly proposed sharp cuts to combat domestic terrorism and proposed the elimination of programs that counter domestic terror groups linked to white supremacy.”

The 11-page report doesn’t discuss domestic terrorists such as white supremacists.

The report also says that during FY ’17 DHS “encountered” more than 2,500 individuals attempting to enter the U.S. who are on the FBI’s terrorist watchlist. Of these, it says 2,170 people were trying to enter the U.S. by air, 335 by land, and 49 by sea.

During her testimony, Nielsen said that in the area of cyber security, the only legislative authority her department is still waiting on is approval to reorganize the National Protection and Programs Directorate into the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Protection Agency, which allows it to better communicate with stakeholders about the operational missions DHS has in cyber security.