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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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At the July 15, 2010 hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee, then chairman Democrat Bennie Thompson insisted that OAM provide the committee with specific data. 

CBP complied and later submitted that since the inception of the program in October 2005 through July 2010, OAM had flown drones 6,979 hours over the southwestern border, with 7,173 illegal immigrants apprehended and 39,049 pounds of narcotics (all marijuana, according to the July 2010 CBP report) seized. 

In the four years since the crash of the first Predator, the border drone fleet had increased to five UAVs. Total UAV flight-time increased seven-fold the hours reported during the October 2005-April 2006 period, yet total drone-related apprehensions were only up three-fold while total drug seizures were up four-fold.

As the number of CBP/OAM drones rise, the productivity – measured by the traditional performance measures of immigrants detained and drugs seized – of the UAV program has dropped precipitously. 

The most recent CBP numbers, cited in the agency’s Dec. 27 media release, raise new questions about the cost-benefit of the drone program.  

Flight time rose to approximately 12,000 hours. Yet the roughly 5,000 recent hours (since July 2010) of drone surveillance contributed, according to CBP’s own reporting, to only 325 new apprehensions and 7,000 pounds of marijuana. 

To give some perspective on the drug haul attributed to UAV surveillance, in Arizona alone CBP seizes on average 3,500 pounds of marijuana every day – making a marijuana seizure every 1.7 hours. In the past couple of years the Border Patrol has seized approximately 2.5 million pounds of marijuana along the southwestern border.

CBP/OAM hails its “eyes in the sky” drone program has being “cost effective” and a “force multiplier.” 

Setting aside the up-front costs of the $20 million drones and the additional maintenance expenses and contractor services fees, and counting only the hourly operational costs, CPB/OAM has spent $17.5 million keeping its drones flying about 5,000 hours over the past year and a half.

In an October media release announcing the acquisition of another Predator for border-security duty in Texas, CBP declared that it “has continued to leverage the Predator B to unprecedented success.”

CBP routinely describes its various border security operations as “unprecedented” success stories. Yet the never agency never cites the precedents involved or even attempts to explain how these precedents in border control have been surpassed by its new initiatives and spending.

If evaluated, as none of the DHS agencies do, in terms of costs and benefits, then the CBP UAV program spent (only in flight costs) $54,846 for every illegal immigrant identified (and later apprehended by Border Patrol teams) on the drone cameras and $2,500 for every pound of marijuana. That’s without factoring in the estimated $20 million that DHS spends for its Predators.

CBP Explains the Numbers Game

CBP has answers to the apparent inconsistencies and errors of its statistics for drone-related drug seizures and immigrant apprehensions.

In response to a request to clarify the confusing and ostensibly errant numbers, CBP warned “it would be unfair to categorize UAS [unmanned aerials systems] by only using drug interdiction or border crossing metrics.”

Yes, ideally CBP would measure progress in securing the homeland by achievements by other measures, such as its role in countering terrorism and keeping the homeland secure – whatever that means. 

The border agency further explains that:

CBP deploys and operates the UAS only after careful examination where the UAS can be most responsibly aid in countering threats of our Nation's security. As threats change, CBP adjusts its enforcement posture accordingly and may consider moving the location of assets.