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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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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. 

Instead, it has poured steadily increasing budgets for border security into all three of its defined instruments of border control, what it calls the “three pillars of border security,” namely personnel or “boots on the ground,” tactical infrastructure (border fence and other physical barriers) and technology including the “virtual fence” of ground-based electronic surveillance and aerial surveillance. 

In CBP-think, all three pillars are equally important and all components of these border-security pillars are equally fundamental to protecting homeland security. 

Unimpressive Numbers

Since 2005 the Border Patrol has seized 13.5 million pounds of cannabis. This does not include the border marijuana seizures by CBP agents working at the POEs or by other federal and local law enforcement officials. 

Yet OAM, which first deployed in 2005, reports that drone surveillance has led to the seizure of a mere 46,600 pounds of marijuana. Drones, then, played a role in seizing less than one percent of the Border Patrol’s total marijuana in the past six years – to be exact only 0.003 percent.

On the “dangerous people” front, CBP reports that in the six years of the UAV program, drones have contributed to the apprehension of 7,500 suspected criminals detained. That’s small potatoes when compared to CBP’s overall number of detentions since 2005 – 5.7 million immigrants, including the 327,000 detained in 2011. Expressed as a percentage, amounts to only 0.001 percent.

Just as DHS eschews cost-benefit analysis, it also doesn’t apply risk analysis. All illegal border crossers and all contraband fall into the broad post-9/11 mission of protecting the homeland against “dangerous people and goods.” If all are dangerous, then DHS argues that all are targets, and the UAV numbers, while small, still demonstrate that these agencies are on target and on mission.  

Typically, CBP frames its UAVs as a fundamental instrument in combatting terrorism, even though no terrorists have ever been spotted or captured. 

CBP says that the Predators play a “lead role in CBP's critical anti-terrorism mission.”

Two Predators also patrol the northern border, and Candice Miller, the Republican from Michigan who chairs the House Subcommittee on Border and Marine Security, complains that CBP is slighting northern border security. 

The northern border Predators, however, haven’t led to a single interception of an illegal border crosser in the past two years. 

Dubious Numbers

Yet another problem with OAM is that its declared numbers are carelessly formulated by the agency. What is more, it’s unclear whether the number of apprehensions and seizures CBP/OAM does disseminate are entirely attributable to UAV surveillance. CBP and OAM officials have been ambiguous about this. Most agency media releases say that Predator surveillance “has led” to the reported drug seizures and immigrant apprehensions. 

Yet other media releases and CBP statements to congressional oversight committees fudge the role of the drones, saying only that drones “contributed to” or were “involved” in the actions that led to the seizures and arrests.

Second, CBP is careless in providing its numbers of arrests, seizures, and flight hours, raising questions about the veracity of the numbers.

The Dec.  27 media release refers to the seizures and arrests during so many drone flight hours – 12,000 hours of drone flight-time since 2005.

But CBP/OAM has over the past year given the media, Congress, and this writer the same arrest and seizure numbers (46,600 pounds of narcotics and 7,500 apprehensions) for varying numbers of reported hours flight-time – for 10,000, 11,500, and mostly recently 12,000 hours of drone air time. 

CBP/OAM’s numbers game also includes variations of the numbers of arrests and seizures for the same number of flight hours. Celebrating reaching 10,000 hours of drone air time in June 2011, CBP/OAM released a press statement asserting that 10,000 hours of “UAS Predator operations have resulted in the apprehension of 4,865 undocumented aliens and 238 smugglers; the seizure of 33,773 pounds of contraband.” 

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. 

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.

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:

UAVs are one more tool for us to stay steps ahead and leaps  above the threats that we face, and they can help deter and  prevent illegal activity and threats to terrorism against the United States. In the event of a National crisis, they will provide critical eyes in the sky for what we can't see or do from the ground.

DHS does not measure the progress and achievements of the program by the number of terrorists seized, drug lords and lieutenants captured, or “transnational criminal organizations” broken by its border security operations. 

Instead, border security programs  -- whether traditional patrolling, the border fence, the “virtual wall” of SBInet, traditional air surveillance, or unmanned aerial surveillance -- continue to be measured by traditional border-control benchmarks: how many immigrants are captured and how many pounds of illegal drugs are seized. 

It is a costly numbers game that has done little or nothing to resolve the country’s immigration policy challenges or the failures of its drug control policy. 

Tom Barry is the author of Border Wars (Boston Review Books). He blogs at http://borderlinesblog.blogspot.com.