GOP Lawmaker Probes Secret Service Purchase of Chinese Drones

Rep. Jim Banks says China could use drones to spy on US president

A Chinese drone in 2015 / Getty Images
September 24, 2021

A Republican member of the House Armed Services Committee is pressing the Justice Department to explain why it allowed the Secret Service to purchase several Chinese-made surveillance drones that he says the Communist regime could use to spy on the U.S. president and his closest associates.

Rep. Jim Banks (R., Ind.) in a letter sent Friday to Attorney General Merrick Garland demanded answers on why the Secret Service purchased eight surveillance drones made by Da-Jiang Innovations (DJI), a China-based company that the U.S. intelligence community has flagged as a Communist spy risk. The use of DJI drones has been barred by the Defense Department, the Army, and the Department of Homeland Security over concerns that the Chinese drones surreptitiously collect data and send it back to the Chinese Communist government.

"As a Member of the House Armed Services Committee who has been briefed on the cyber security threat that these Chinese-made drones pose, I am very concerned that these drones will be used by malevolent actors within the Chinese Communist Party to spy on individuals the Secret Service is charged with protecting," Banks wrote, according to a copy of the letter obtained by the Washington Free Beacon. "These individuals include President Joe Biden and his immediate family, Vice President Kamala Harris and her immediate family, former presidents Donald Trump, Barrack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter and their spouses, and other visiting heads of foreign states."

Banks's letter is the latest in the lawmaker's long-running effort to stop the federal government using DJI drones, which have been the subject of controversy since at least 2017, when the Army grounded its fleet of DJI-made drones, citing security concerns. The Department of Homeland Security followed suit soon after, when it discovered that DJI drones were "providing U.S. critical infrastructure and law enforcement data to the Chinese government."

DJI spokesman Adam Lisberg, in comment to the Free Beacon, disputed Banks' letter, saying that "DJI drone products are safe and secure for government and professional use."

"Our systems are designed so customers never have to share their photos, videos or flight logs with anyone, including DJI," Lisberg said. "The data security architecture that protects this information has been repeatedly validated by U.S. government agencies, as well as respected private cybersecurity analysts." DJI drones, he maintained, are safe for use in "sensitive industrial and government work."

Banks in July 2020 petitioned former attorney general Bill Barr to ban the use of DJI drones. The Justice Department that October issued an internal memo that bans the purchase of DJI drones.

But the FBI, which is under the Justice Department's jurisdiction, in July 2021 spent more than $72,000 on 27 DJI drones, eight of which will be used by the Secret Service.

The purchase prompted a probe by Banks, who is demanding that the Justice Department explain how and why it bought a new stock of DJI-made drones.

The lawmaker wants to know if the department has reversed its ban on DJI drones, and, if so, "how do you justify that decision considering the Department of Defense's July 23, 2021, statement claiming DJI products 'pose potential threats to nationals,'" according to the letter.

Banks is also requesting information on how the Secret Service will use the DJI drones and if the drones will "monitor the activities and conversations of those in the Secret Service's protection."

Update 3:02 p.m.: This post has been updated with comment from a DJI spokesman.