Government Officials Confirm to Portman that Biden Administration is Purchasing Chinese-Made Drones

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, received confirmation from government officials that the federal government is purchasing Chinese-made Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on the evolving threat posed by UAS, also known as drones. Following confirmation from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) that they are indeed purchasing these Chinese-made drones, Portman stressed how critical it is to pass the Senate-passed United States Innovation and Competition Act (USICA) package since it includes the bipartisan American Security Drone Act. The American Security Drone Act would prohibit U.S. federal agencies from purchasing Chinese-made drones. 

A transcript of his questioning can be found below and a video can be found here. 

Portman: “Great. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thanks to the witnesses for their testimony. This is obviously a serious issue and I agree with Ms. Vinograd, who said that a lapse in the authorization would be catastrophic. I think it would help these transnational criminal organizations, among others, and yet we need better data to be able to put together the right authorization to write sound policy. We know already what happens on the border with these drones. We know they’re used for deliveries, not just for drugs, but also for currency, firearms, and other contraband. This Committee has among its responsibilities, oversight of DHS and these border activities. We have a particular interest, I certainly do, and this issue of the synthetic opioids that are streaming across our border today, the numbers, unfortunately, are higher than ever. Last month, enough fentanyl was seized, which is a synthetic opioid that’s killing about two-thirds of those who die from overdoses, which is at a record level. We know that there is enough seized to kill about 200 million Americans, in one month. And no one on the border thinks that we are seizing most and not even a significant percentage of what’s coming across. So it’s a big issue. Ms. Vinograd, a question for you. Understanding this increased threat from these transnational criminal organizations, how do you assess DHS’s current performance in countering the use of drones for cross-border illicit activity?” 

Samantha Vinograd, Acting Assistant Secretary for Counterterrorism and Threat Prevention and Law Enforcement Policy at the Department of Homeland Security: “Senator, thank you. I share your concern about transnational criminal organizations and the malicious use of drones over the border, both as it pertains to smuggling contraband, as well as surveillance of law enforcement in addition to other threats. Currently, DHS, the Secretary of Homeland Security, has designated three areas of operations along the southwest border as covered facilities or assets. This allows DHS, CBP, more specifically, to engage in CUAS operations in these areas of operations.” 

Portman: “Let me be more specific because I don’t have much time. In your testimony, you state from August 2021 to May 2022, CBP detected more than 8,000 illegal cross border drone flights at the southern border. Of these 8,000 flights, how many were successfully mitigated by DHS?” 

Ms. Vinograd: “Senator, I can ask CBP to get back to you and your staff with the specific statistics.” 

Portman: “Well we’ve been asking them for this since February, persistently, and we are not getting the information so I think it’s important we have an authorization, but we have to have information. If we don’t have the statistics today, if you don’t have it, despite many many inquiries from us, that concerns me. I want to work with you, again, on this reauthorization, but we’ve got to have better information to be able to do it properly. With regard to drones, let’s talk about China for a moment. Recently, the directors of the FBI and Britain’s MI-5 warned of the national security and economic threats posed by China. They identified it as our greatest long-term threat, stealing our technology, dominating our markets, and they talked about the US drone market and they talked about the use of drones. Here’s an example. According to a report by the Washington Post, China’s DJI is the leading provider of drones to US law enforcement agencies, they say. DJI has servers in China. They have support from the Chinese government. The Chinese State Security Services is one of their customers. Here’s our own Commerce Department saying DJI has been added to an export blacklist last year after Bloomberg reported that it supplied surveillance technology to Chinese security forces in Xinjiang, where millions of Uyghur Muslims have been forced into internment camps. So there’s a report that last year the Secret Service purchased eight of DJI’s drones. The FBI purchased 18 of them. So let me just ask you these questions on the record. Start with Mr. Wiegmann. Does the FBI currently purchase and use Chinese-made drones? Yes or no?” 

Brad Wiegmann, Deputy Assistant Attorney General, National Security Division at the U.S. Department of Justice: “We do.” 

Portman: “You do. Ms. Vinograd, does DHS currently purchase and use Chinese-made drones?” 

Ms. Vinograd: “DHS has prohibited the purchase of foreign-made drones, small UAS, absent waivers and very specific circumstances.” 

Portman: “Okay, so this report that I mentioned said that the Secret Service had purchased eight of DJI’s drones. You’re saying that’s inaccurate?” 

Ms. Vinograd: “I’m saying that with certain waivers, very specific waivers.” 

Portman: “My question to you is, are you purchasing DJI drones or not? Yes or no?” 

Ms. Vinograd: “With specific waivers, DHS can purchase certain…” 

Portman: “Are you purchasing DJI drones, yes or no?” 

Ms. Vinograd: “With certain waivers we are purchasing certain foreign made aircraft.” 

Portman: “So you are?” 

Ms. Vinograd: “I can follow up with more specific details…” 

Portman: “Okay. But the answer is yes?” 

Ms. Vinograd: “In a closed hearing I can provide more specific details, sir.” 

Portman: “Okay. Ms. Coultas, don’t want to leave you out. Does FAA currently purchase and use Chines- made drones?” 

Tonya D. Coultas, Deputy Associate Administrator for Security and Hazardous Materials Safety, Federal Aviation Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation: “FAA’s responsibility is for the integration of UAS into the NAS and testing of the UAS technology to ensure its safety and its use in the NAS. We don’t actually purchase drones. We do the testing of the drones.” 

Portman: “Thank you. Again, given what the FBI has told us, what the Commerce Department has told us, what we know from reports, I can’t believe we have to write legislation to force US agencies to ban the use of Chinese-made drones, particularly where the servers are in China, where the Chinese government is a part owner and a supporter of this particular company. But we do have that in the USICA bill. It’s a requirement in the USICA bill, and I hope we can get that legislation passed. If we cannot get that legislation passed, would you all support including this kind of legislation and whatever we do in terms of reauthorization? Ms. Vinograd?” 

Ms. Vinograd: “I share your concerns about these drones and would welcome a conversation on specific language, sir. Yes.” 

Portman: “Mr. Wiegmann?” 

Mr. Wiegmann: “So just to be clear, we share the concern as well, Senator. We want to shift away from the use of Chinese drones, and the FBI is working and other parts of DOJ are working on that objective. Right now they kind of dominate the market. So we’re working to shift our use of drones away from Chinese drones to other alternatives. In the meantime, FBI takes steps to do thorough cybersecurity and supply chain reviews to ensure that any risk posed by use of the technology is mitigated. But we do want to shift away from it, and so we definitely support the aims of the sponsors of the bill. I think we’ve provided some technical assistance and some technical issues about things we would need to do, changes we’d make to the bill to make sure that we could support it and could conduct our mission consistent with the provisions, but we share the objectives of shifting away from these drones and using other alternatives that don’t pose the same type of supply chain risk.” 

Portman: “Well, thank you. The administration supports the legislation, the USICA legislation and we did negotiate it with the administration as well as Democrats and Republicans here in the United States Senate. So we appreciate your support of the broader legislation and I hope we continue to work with each of you on both of these issues, getting better data as to what’s actually happening, particularly along the border. We have a special interest in this Committee, but also with regard to the use of these drones and the potential national security threat of having this information be relayed back to China and used against us. Thank you Mr. Chairman.”