U.S. officials warn Congress on risks of drones, seek new powers

A sign at a downtown city park informs people the area is a no drone zone in San Diego, California, U.S., May 17, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration urged Congress on Wednesday to give it new powers to disable or destroy threatening drones, according to testimony viewed by Reuters.

David Glawe, undersecretary for intelligence and analysis at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and Hayley Chang, DHS’ deputy general counsel, told the Senate committee that oversees the department that it needs new authority.

“Terrorist groups overseas use drones to conduct attacks on the battlefield and continue to plot to use them in terrorist attacks elsewhere. This is a very serious, looming threat that we are currently unprepared to confront,” the officials’ written testimony said.

A bipartisan group of senators including Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron Johnson, a Republican, and the committee’s top Democrat, Claire McCaskill, last month introduced legislation to give DHS and the Justice Department authority to “to protect buildings and assets when there is an unacceptable security risk to public safety posed by an unmanned aircraft.”

Johnson noted a bipartisan group of senators backs the legislation.

“The federal government does not have the legal authorities it needs to protect the American public from these kinds of threats. The threats posed by malicious drones are too great to ignore,” Johnson said.

Johnson said the number of drone flights over sensitive areas or suspicious activities has jumped from eight incidents in 2013 to an estimated 1,752 incidents in 2016, citing federal statistics.

The American Civil Liberties Union said in a letter to the committee that it opposes the bill, which “amounts to an enormous unchecked grant of authority to the government to forcefully remove drones form the sky in nebulous security circumstances.”

FBI deputy assistant director Scott Brunner told the committee the agency is “concerned that criminals and terrorists will exploit (drones) in ways that pose a serious threat to the safety of the American people.”

Threats could include surveillance, chemical, biological or radiological attacks or attacks “on large open air venues” like concerts and sporting events and attacks against government facilities, he said.

The DHS testimony noted a number of recent incidents involving drones.

In March, a Coast Guard helicopter in California was forced to take evasive action to avoid a drone. A drone recently landed on the deck of the Coast Guard Cutter Sea Lion in San Diego harbor.

DHS said despite upgraded security efforts in U.S. capital area, “we are still experiencing (drone) incidents … that require an appropriate response – even if they are nuisance or non-compliant operators who disregard the rules.”

In 2017, a small civilian drone struck a U.S. Army helicopter near New York City damaging a rotor blade. Since 2017, federal officials have banned drones over U.S. military bases, national landmarks, nuclear sites and other sensitive areas.

The Federal Aviation Administration said in January that more than 1 million drones have been registered. In May, the U.S. Department of Transportation picked 10 pilot projects allowing drone use at night, out of sight operations and over populated areas.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; editing by Michael Perry and G Crosse)

U.S. Energy Department forming cyber protection unit for power grids

Former Texas Governor Rick Perry, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's pick to lead the Department of Energy, meets with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. January 4, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) said on Wednesday it is establishing an office to protect the nation’s power grid and other infrastructure against cyber attacks and natural disasters.

President Donald Trump’s budget proposal unveiled this week included $96 million in funding for the Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry said the DOE “plays a vital role in protecting our nation’s energy infrastructure from cyber threats, physical attack and natural disaster, and as secretary, I have no higher priority.”

Last July, the DOE helped U.S. firms defend against a hacking campaign that targeted power companies including at least one nuclear plant. The agency said that the attacks did not have an impact on electricity generation or the grid, and that any impact appeared to be limited to administrative and business networks.

The previous month, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation had issued an alert to industrial companies, warning that for months hackers had targeted nuclear reactors and other power industry infrastructure, using tainted emails to harvest credentials and gain access to networks.

In some cases hackers succeeded in compromising the networks of their targets, but the report did not identify specific victims.

Nuclear power experts, such as Dave Lochbaum at the Union of Concerned Scientists nonprofit group, have said reactors have a certain amount of immunity from cyber attacks because their operation systems are separate from digital business networks. But over time it would not be impossible for hackers to potentially do harm, he said.

(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

U.S. ending laptop ban on Middle Eastern airlines

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Transportation Security Administration said on Monday it had lifted a ban on passengers on Saudi Arabian Airlines carrying large electronics like laptops onboard U.S.-bound flights, the last carrier under the restrictions.

In March, U.S. officials imposed restrictions on passengers carrying laptops and other large electronic gear in cabins on nine airlines, most of which were Middle Eastern carriers, to address the potential threat of hidden explosives.

Last month, U.S. officials announced new security requirements for all airlines rather than an expansion of the laptop ban and have been dropping the restrictions from airlines as they boosted security.

A TSA spokesman said the U.S. government had lifted the restrictions at Saudia Arabian Airlines’ main hub in Jeddah at King Abdulaziz International Airport on Monday. U.S. government officials will visit Riyadh’s King Khalid International Airport “later this week to confirm compliance there as well,” spokesman James Gregory said.

On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a revised directive to airlines around the world in response to requests that it clarify aviation security measures scheduled to begin taking effect later this week.

An airline official briefed on the matter said the directive gave airlines more flexibility and additional time to obtain explosive trace detection equipment. The official was not authorized to discuss sensitive security issues with the media and requested anonymity.

 

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Tom Brown)

 

U.S. might ban laptops on all flights into and out of the country

A TSA worker loads suitcases at the checked luggage security screening station at Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles, California,

By Toni Clarke

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States might ban laptops from aircraft cabins on all flights into and out of the country as part of a ramped-up effort to protect against potential security threats, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said on Sunday.

In an interview on “Fox News Sunday,” Kelly said the United States planned to “raise the bar” on airline security, including tightening screening of carry-on items.

“That’s the thing that they are obsessed with, the terrorists, the idea of knocking down an airplane in flight, particularly if it’s a U.S. carrier, particularly if it’s full of U.S. people.”

In March, the government imposed restrictions on large electronic devices in aircraft cabins on flights from 10 airports, including the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Turkey.

Kelly said the move would be part of a broader airline security effort to combat what he called “a real sophisticated threat.” He said no decision had been made as to the timing of any ban.

“We are still following the intelligence,” he said, “and are in the process of defining this, but we’re going to raise the bar generally speaking for aviation much higher than it is now.”

Airlines are concerned that a broad ban on laptops may erode customer demand. But none wants an incident aboard one of its airplanes.

“Whatever comes out, we’ll have to comply with,” Oscar Munoz, chief executive officer of United Airlines told¬† the company’s annual meeting last week.

Airlines were blindsided in January when President Donald Trump issued an executive order banning entry for 90 days to citizens from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen, sending airlines scrambling to determine who could board and who could not. The order was later blocked in the courts.

In the case of laptops, the administration is keeping the industry in the loop. Delta Air Lines ¬†said in a statement it “continues to be in close contact with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security,” while Munoz applauded the administration for giving the company a “heads up.”

“We’ve had constant updates on the subject,” he said. “We know more than most. And again, if there’s a credible threat out there, we need to make sure we take the appropriate measures.”

MORE SCRUTINY OF CARRY-ONS

Among the enhanced security measures will likely be tighter screening of carry-on items to allow Transport Security Administration agents to discern problematic items in tightly stuffed bags.

Kelly said that in order to avoid paying fees for checking bags, people were stuffing them to the point where it was difficult to see through the clutter.

“The more stuff is in there, the less the TSA professionals that are looking at what’s in those bags through the monitors can tell what’s in them.”

The TSA has begun testing certain new procedures at a limited number of airports, requiring people to remove additional items from carry-on bags for separate screenings.

Asked whether the government would expand such measures nationwide, Kelly said: “We might, and likely will.”

(Reporting by Toni Clarke in Washington; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu in Washington, David French in New York and Alana Wise in Chicago; Editing by David Gregorio and Peter Cooney)