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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Predator drones have been in the headlines lately. These high-tech unmanned aircraft are most often used for surveillance and missile attacks. The U.S. military has increased their use in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The debate focuses on whether their effectiveness in killing enemy combatants comes at the expense of too many lost civilian lives.

Aerial drones aren't used only in war and they aren't used only overseas. Weaponless Predators also patrol American skies. The Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection division has five of them to patrol the U.S. border with Canada.

Michael Kostelnik is assistant commissioner for air and marine operations at Customs and Border Protection, and he joins us by phone from his office in Washington. Thank you for your time.

Mr. MICHAEL KOSTELNIK (Assistant Commissioner, Air and Marine Operations, Customs and Border Protection): Always a pleasure.

HANSEN: Mr. Kostelnik, your knowledge of the drones is encyclopedic. I wonder if we can focus on one, the Predator, and it being used on the border with Canada. What is their purpose?

Mr. KOSTELNIK: The border has never been well defined. You may know there are property farms where part of the farm in the northwest is in Canada and part of the farm is in the United States. There is a library in the northeast where half of the building is in Canada and the other half is in the U.S.

So the role of the Predator first deployed to North Dakota is to start patrolling the northern border, and the Predator looks on the U.S. side. We're interested in the U.S. side of the border, not the Canadian side. I mean, this is always a concern with our friends up north. You know, why are you militarizing the border? Why are you spying on Canadian citizens? And neither really are accurate of what we're doing.

We're really up there patrolling in between the ports of entry to see if there is any elicit activity going on. And there are a lot of things that happen. Routinely, we have small helicopters that come and draw up hockey bags that are full of BC Bud, a very lethal type of hydroponically grown marijuana. We know methamphetamines of all kinds are coming through ports and between the ports. It's important to understand what those things are.

But, also, importantly, an opportunity to expose this technology and its capability to the local, political and law enforcement infrastructures. Because we had the Predator deployed to North Dakota during the floods this spring, we were actually able to assist the state of North Dakota by flying overhead missions with the Predator, supporting their emergency operation center and response and recovery people on the ground.

HANSEN: And a hypothetical, though, I mean, considering you have the capability, really, to, I don't know, zero in on a dime from, like, five miles up or more, hypothetical - that library on the border - half in the United States, half in Canada - does the Predator B have the capability to look inside that library and see who's there?

Mr. KOSTELNIK: No. You know, it's really not that kind of thing.

HANSEN: This is a concern that people do have. They're afraid that these unmanned drones are going to be able to go over their houses and see who's in there, see what they're doing. So, it feels like an invasion of privacy. In addition to that, are there missions that require probable cause?

Mr. KOSTELNIK: You know, we use the unmanned assets in exactly the same way as we use the manned assets. We really use the aircrafts and the sensors to support on-the-ground interdictions. And they're used in areas where, and only in areas, quite frankly, where we expect there's some elicit activity going on.

HANSEN: Are there any other proposals that you haven't discussed, that we haven't talked about, for use of these aircraft?

Mr. KOSTELNIK: Obviously we're primarily a border security agency, so our assets are aligned mostly along the border. But once our assets are in place, obviously we support all of the Department of Homeland Security missions. But we also support other federal users, if asked. If there were wildfires in California, for example, and our aircraft could get there, obviously, if the state of California asked, you know, we would be there to help.

HANSEN: Michael Kostelnik is assistant commissioner for air and marine operations at U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Thank you, sir.

Mr. KOSTELNIK: Always a pleasure.

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