News & Politics  
comments_image Comments

DHS Pumping Money into Drones for Domestic Surveillance, Hunting Immigrants and Seizing Pot

DHS has little to show for its drone spending spree other than stacks of seized marijuana and a few thousand immigrants who crossed the border without visas.
 
 
Share
 
 
 
 

The Department of Homeland Security says it needs a fleet of two-dozen Predator and Guardian drones to protect the homeland adequately. Designed for military use, 10 of these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are already patrolling U.S. borders in the hunt for unauthorized immigrants and illegal drugs.

DHS is building its drone fleet at a rapid pace despite its continuing inability to demonstrate their purported cost-effectiveness.  The unarmed Predator and Guardians (the maritime variant) cost about $20 million each. Yet DHS has little to show for its UAV spending spree other than stacks of seized marijuana and several thousand immigrants who crossed the border without visas.

Aside from a continuing funding bonanza for border security, to pursue its drone strategy DHS is also counting on the Federal Aviation Administration to continue authorizing the use of more domestic airspace by the unarmed drones. And FAA seems set to comply, having approved 35 of the 36 requests by the department’s Customs and Protection agency from 2005 to mid-2010. In congressional testimony in July 2010, the FAA said it was streamlining its authorization process for drones, including the hiring of 12 additional staff to process drone airspace requests.

While DHS is leading the way, national and local law enforcement agencies, as well as private entities, are demanding that FAA open the American skies to drone surveillance. Yet neither the FAA nor the Department of Transportation has been forthcoming in informing the U.S. public about the new robotic presence in the already congested American airways. The Electronic Frontier Foundation  recently filed a suit against the transportation department for allegedly withholding information about drones in our skies.  

More Predators on Border 

For decades, the Border Patrol has annually boasted of the millions of pounds of illegal drugs it has seized and the number of immigrants detained. It’s a practice that border scholar Peter Andreas aptly calls "the numbers game."

Since the creation of the DHS, illegal immigrants and drugs aren’t just illegal, they are now classified as “dangerous people and goods.”

In fiscal year 2011 CBP reports that it seized “nearly five million pounds of narcotics.” But it fails to note that the domestic consumption of illegal drugs, especially marijuana, is steadily increasing despite these monumental numbers or that most of these “narcotics” enter the country from Mexico despite a massive buildup in border security and U.S. support for the Mexican drug war.

In its latest Predator announcement, Office of Air and Marine (OAM) tried playing the numbers game, but raised questions about the integrity of the numbers in the process:

Since the inception of the UAS program, CBP has flown more than 12,000 UAS hours in support of border security operations and CBP partners in disaster relief and emergency response, including various state governments and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The efforts of this program has led to the total seizure of approximately 46,600 pounds of illicit drugs and the detention of approximately 7,500 individuals suspected in engaging in illegal activity along the Southwest border.

One problem is the low numbers of seizures and apprehensions attributed to drone surveillance.

Another is that all the “narcotics” seizures CBP/OAM attributes to drone surveillance consist of bundles of Mexican-grown marijuana. That’s understandable since marijuana constitutes almost 100 percent of the drug seizures between the ports of entry along the southwestern border – more than 99 percent along the Arizona border. 

But is this small quantity of marijuana spotted by the Predators worth their $20 million price tag (including surveillance systems and support)? That’s not a question the congressional oversight committees have asked DHS. Nor has DHS asked itself questions about comparative costs and benefits of border control measures.