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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.

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Setting aside questions about why CBP/OAM can’t get its current numbers straight, the integrity and value of the drone program are also called into doubt by the unimpressive rate in the increased number of drug seizures and immigrant apprehensions reported by the agencies since 2006. 

As more Predators are added to the CBP/OAM fleet, the rate of arrests and seizures has dropped dramatically.

Crash and Burn

CBP deployed its first Predator drone in October 2005. Manufactured by General Atomics in the San Diego area, the Predator drone also came with a General Atomics technical team and pilot to operate the drone.

If evaluated against the total numbers attributed to the border Predators since 2005, the quantity of marijuana seized and the number of immigrants apprehended during the first six months of border drone surveillance are outstanding.

When announcing that it was purchasing its second Predator, CBP said that “during its operational period” its first Predator flew 959 hours and supported 2,309 arrests, contributed to the seizure of four vehicles, and the capture of 8,267 pounds of illegal drugs

That operational period was from October 2005 to April 2006, when the Predator crashed in the Arizona desert near Nogales. 

Crash investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board found that the contract pilot shut off the drone’s engine when he thought he was redirecting the drone’s camera. As Major General Michael Kostelnik, who directs OAM, explained to the Border and Marine Subcommittee of the House Homeland Security Committee, “There was a momentary loss link that switched to the second control” -- and the Predator fell out of the sky.

The safety board issued CBP 17 safety recommendations to address deficiencies in OAM’s drone program. 

CBP/OAM has not, however, estimated the cost of this strategy. Nor have the agencies reported on the cost of the program thus far. A review of DHS purchasing reveals that the department spent $242 million in drone contracts with General Atomics. 

The crash didn’t deter CBP/OAM, which has steadily increased the homeland security drone fleet – which now includes seven Predators and two more expensive maritime variants called Guardians, also manufactured by General Atomics. By 2016 CBP hopes to deploy a fleet of 24 Predators and Reapers protecting the homeland. 

recent report by the Government Accounting Office on CBP’s high-tech border-security programs noted that the UAVs have “significant infrastructure costs with the highest cost risk.” Yet DHS continues to burn through its ever-expanding border security budget without apparent concern for cost-effectiveness or aptness in pursuing the DHS counterterrorism mission. 

Declining Numbers as Predators Increase

Border state politicians like governors Jan Brewer and Rick Perry together with an array of congressional Democrats and Republicans – notably the leadership of the homeland security oversight committees (including Michael McCaul, Henry Cuellar, and Candice Miller) insist that the increased deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles is fundamental to securing the border.

But as Predator drones have increased, the number of marijuana seizures and arrests of illegal border crossers attributed to drone surveillance has dropped precipitously.

During the six months of operation of the ill-fated first border Predator (which crashed in the Arizona desert in April 2006), the drone accounted for nearly a third of the total 2005-2011 drone-related apprehensions and nearly one-fifth of total drug seizures.  

At congressional hearings since 2005, OAM officials routinely report on the drone program with anecdotes and tributes to the wondrous technological capacities of the UAVs. Facts and figures, costs and benefits, and impact evaluations compared to other border security programs are, however, not routinely reported.