The Pentagon was pushing back Wednesday afternoon on a USA Today report about the government's domestic drone program, with defense officials asserting the few non-military missions flown over U.S. territory were done to aid first responders. A defense official, who had knowledge of drone use inside the U.S. and spoke to Fox News, detailed several missions: Helping first responders extinguish forest fires in California in 2013; assisting in two search-and-rescue missions in California in 2015; helping stop recent flooding in Mississippi and South Carolina. In those cases, requests were made by organizations such as FEMA, the California Office of Emergency Services and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
"We felt like we could help," said the official, who had knowledge of the military's drone use inside the U.S. "We were supporting first responders."
But that explanation differed from the description of the drone program in a USA Today report that portrayed the unmanned aerial vehicles as being used to "spy over U.S. territory."
USA Today, which first reported in-depth about the flights on Wednesday, cited a Pentagon inspector general report that was recently made public by a Freedom of Information Act request as the source of most of its information.
That report said fewer than 20 such flights had occurred between 2006 and 2015 and all had been lawful. The document provided no details of any approved mission. One example of a request, however, indicated an unidentified mayor asked the Marine Corps to fly a drone over his city to find potholes. The request was denied because it “did not make operational sense.” Under 2006 guidelines established by the Pentagon, military drone use for civilian missions had to be approved by the secretary of defense or someone delegated by the secretary, USA Today reported. No defense secretaries have ever delegated that responsibility, according to the report. In 2015, those rules were altered so that only the secretary of defense could grant approval for missions, and drones could only be flown for testing or training. Then-FBI Director Robert Mueller first revealed in 2013 testimony before Congress that drones had flown over the U.S.--Fox News' Lucas Tomlinson contributed to this report.