The National Football League’s top security official on Thursday backed bipartisan legislation that would authorize the federal government to track, seize and destroy drones considered a threat to large, public gatherings.
Cathy Lanier, the NFL’s senior vice president of security, described for the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee “a dramatic increase in the number of threats, incidents, and incursions by drones” at NFL stadiums, including an incident last year at Levi’s Stadium, home of the San Francisco 49ers, when a drone dropped leaflets near one of the end zones.
“We are all very fortunate that the drone over Levi’s Stadium dropped only leaflets,” said Lanier, the former chief of police in Washington D.C. “Drones today are capable of inflicting much greater damage.”
Lanier said the NFL supports legislation (S 2836) sponsored by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., the committee’s chairman, and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., its ranking member, that would allow the departments of Justice and Homeland Security to take down drones in restricted airspace. House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, is pushing a companion bill (HR 6401).
Johnson said he was “shocked” when he learned the government is currently unable to shoot down drones posing a threat to large groups of people.
But the NFL wants Congress to take the legislation a step further and allow local authorities — not just federal ones — to engage threatening drones. Lanier said drones are often launched without warning from nearby parking lots, and the response time for federal authorities may be too slow. She said local, state and federal authorities should apply joint counterterrorism strategies to drone interdiction.
“Experience has taught us that there simply are not enough federal resources and personnel to provide security at all events that need protection, including the 256 NFL games that occur across the country in a season,” said Lanier in her prepared remarks for the committee.
Lanier said the league also supports the Federal Aviation Administration’s proposal to require most drones owned and operated in the United States to have a remote identification number, which would operate like a license plate. But she said the Department of Homeland Security, not the FAA, should lead drone interdiction efforts.
FBI Director Christopher Wray, appearing before the committee last September, said terrorist organizations “have an interest in using drones” and warned they could attempt to use them in the United States.
“We’ve seen that overseas already, with some growing frequency, and I think the expectation is it’s coming here imminently,” said Wray. “I think they are relatively easy to acquire, relatively easy to operate, and quite difficult to disrupt and monitor.”
Meanwhile, the NFL has sought to use its own drones. In 2015 it became the first major sports league to receive permission from the FAA to film with drones, though not during games. A league spokesman said at the time that drones “will be used when there are no people present for scenic shots,” according to the Washington Post.
Individual teams have also tried to combat drones that could potentially be used by opponents to spy on practice. In August, the Pittsburgh Steelers erected a two-story retractable tarp at the end of one of their practice fields, according to USA Today.
Asked about the tarp, Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin responded, “This is interesting times, drones and so forth.”