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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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Then, the agency trots out the old force-multiplier assertion: 

The UAS can stay in the air for up to 20 hours at a time-something no other aircraft in the federal inventory can do. In this manner it is a force multiplier, providing aerial surveillance support for border agents by investigating sensor activity in remote areas to distinguish between real or perceived threats, allowing the boots on the ground force to best allocate their resources and efforts. 

That’s true. The Predators are called out when ground sensors signal movement. But as OAM’s Major General Michael Kostelnik explained at the July 15, 2010 Border and Marine Security subcommittee hearing:

At a standard 15 sensor activations, 12 of them might just be the wind. Two might be animals. One might be a group of migrants, and one might be a big group carrying drugs.

If there is a plausible explanation as to why there has been no increase in the number of drug seizures and immigrant apprehensions despite a jump from 10,000 to 12,000 hours of drone flights, it may be, as CBP wrote in response to the request to clarify its numbers, that:  

UAS is not exclusive to the border security mission. CBP OAM leverages the Predator-B and Guardian UAS as a force multiplier during National Special Security Events and emergency and disaster response efforts, including those of the U.S. Secret Service, Federal Emergency Management Agency, USCG, and other Department of Homeland Security partners.

In other words, the border Predators haven’t been on the border but have been deployed elsewhere on homeland security missions. 

Which, would mean, that despite the increased number of Predators and Guardians assigned for border security duty, the drones aren’t patrolling the border and coasts – a scenario, if true, would likely upset all the border security hawks who insist that these drones are needed to secure the border. 

It’s more likely, however, that CBP/OAM has from beginning been cooking the books and manipulating -- and that no one has called them on the inconsistencies. 

Asked in the same query to show how CBP/OAM disaggregated the drone-related numbers from overall seizure and apprehension data and for the documentation to support its UAV flight-time declarations, CBP/OAM had no response.

The Larger Threat Picture

Asked at Border and Marine Security subcommittee hearing if the Predators were worth the expense, Major General (Ret.) Kostelnik redirected the question away from actual achievements to the larger threat picture of protecting the homeland against unknown future threats. Kostelnik told the congressional oversight committee: 

I think the UAVs in their current deployment are very helpful in terms of the missions we apply it for. I believe we are building a force for a threat and an experience we really haven't seen yet. It is something that is in the future.

Major General Kostelnik summarized his support for DHS strategy to deploy two dozen drones, telling the oversight committee: “So not only are they ongoing force multipliers for the agents and troops on the ground, but they are unique capabilities in unique circumstances.”

Members of the DHS oversight committees also cite national security threats as the rationale for their drone boosterism, and like the major general are equally vague about the specific character of the threats that would justify the billions of dollars needed to continue the CBP/OAM drone strategy. 

Henry Cuellar, former chairman and currently ranking member of the Border Security and Marine Subcommittee, has become one of the most prominent boosters of DHS drone acquisition. The Democrat from South Texas and co-chair of the House Unarmed Systems Caucus, explained his enthusiasm for the Predators on the border in his opening statement to the July 15, 2010 subcommittee hearing: