Americas Program Policy Report: Border Drones a Financial and Policy Bust

By  |  10 / February / 2015

MQ-1 PredatorPresident Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson are committed to more drone surveillance of U.S. borders – despite mounting evidence from the government’s own investigators that the border drone program is a monumental bust.

The DHS Office of the Inspector General released a report in January whose startling title, “CBP Drones are Dubious Achievers,” understates the extent of the drone program’s waste, ineffectiveness, and deception. While claiming that drones patrol the entire southwestern border, the report revealed that drone surveillance has been limited to small stretches of the nearly 2,000 mile border and that the costs of its flights were four times higher than drone officials had reported.

Over the past year, the president has called for emergency supplemental funding for DHS to fund a “sustained border security surge,” including new funding for border drones.

Johnson specified that deployment of Predator drones over the Southwest border is key to his new “border security initiative, which he calls the Southern Border and Approaches Campaign. Before joining DHS last year, Johnson served successively as general counsel for the Air Force and Department of Defense (2009-2013). As the chief DOD legal counsel, Johnson formulated the legal justification for President Obama’s use of Predator drones in targeted killings overseas.

Criticisms Mount

Support by the White House and DHS for the use of military-grade drones persists even as criticism of the program mounts. Since the first deployment in 2005 of Predator drones by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) – the most heavily funded DHS agency – the program has come under critical review from the Congressional Research Service, Government Accountability Office (GAO), and the DHS Office of the Inspector General (OIG).

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The recent OIG report hammers the CBP and the Office of Air and Marine for the continuing failure to institute performance measures and to meet planned flight-time objectives.

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 More than a dozen reports have lambasted the drone program for its failure to meet stated goals, absence of performance measures, and failure to formulate operational plans and strategic directions. Office of Air and Marine (OAM), which DHS created at the same time that CBP launched the drone program, has overseen the expansion of its drone fleet from one Predator to eight Predators and two Predator marine-surveillance variants known as Guardians.

As part of its strategic plan, CBP/OAM plans to increase the drone fleet to two-dozen Predators and Guardians as part of a plan that supposedly give the CBP/OAM the capacity to respond to emergencies and threats anywhere within the United States in three hours or less.

Despite all the negative reports, CBP has been largely dismissive of governmental evaluations of its border drone program. In 2012, the DHS inspector general produced a report that added to the growing library of critical evaluations of the border drones, taking CBP/OAM to task for its lack of performance measures and for keeping the Predators grounded on military bases rather than flying surveillance missions.

This scathing evaluation didn’t undermine White House or DHS support for the costly drone program. And CBP/OAM essentially shrugged off the OIG’s critiques and recommendations – as is evident in a new OIG evaluation

The recently released report (published in December 2014 and made public in early January 2015) is the harshest of governmental evaluations of the troubled drone program to date. “Notwithstanding the significant investment, we see no evidence that the drones contribute to a more secure border, and there is no reason to invest additional taxpayer funds at this time,” the report concludes.

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Before entering into multimillion dollar contracts with General Atomics, CBP didn’t study how drones could contribute to border control or review the type of drones that could best meet the gaps in border surveillance.

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­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­The OIG report hammers the CBP and the Office of Air and Marine for the continuing failure to institute performance measures and to meet planned flight-time objectives. What is more, OIG takes CBP/OAM to task for its deception regarding the costs of the drone program and the area of the border subject to drone surveillance. Furthermore, the report notes the program’s meager results and its failure to reduce the overall costs of border control, as CBP has repeatedly promised.

The report also criticizes CBP/OAM for not providing a full accounting of the costs of the drone program and observes that the program has not complied with its stated goals in terms of flight time, apprehensions, reducing costs of border control, and area covered by drone surveillance.

The report falls short of calling for DHS to shut down the CBP drone program, but did take the unusual step of calling for an independent investigation of it.

CBP resistance to oversight and reform has been increasingly on display as it has been subject to a steady stream of critical media reports and government investigations, notably with respect to its human rights abuses and shoddy investigations of Border Patrol killings of immigrants.

The report highlights the enormous waste of government funds spent on border drones while underscoring the program’s complete absence of strategic direction. But still more shocking is the OIG report’s revelations about CBP’s near-total lack of accountability and transparency – and honesty.

Drones for Border Counterterrorism

In the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush authorized CBP to launch a drone surveillance program using Predator drones manufactured by General Atomics. Initial steps to kick off the drone surveillance program occurred in 2004 when General Atomics gave CBP a demonstration of a Predator drone in Arizona.

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Since 2004, CBP has maintained sole-source contracts with General Atomics for the $18-20 million dollar drones, with no process of open bidding.

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Before entering into its purchasing, operation and maintenance contracts with General Atomics, CBP didn’t study how drones could contribute to border control or review the type of drones that could best meet the gaps in border surveillance. Instead, CBP looked to the national security establishment for guidance and determined that the same drones favored by the military and the CIA for surveillance and targeted killings in the Middle East and South Asia could help secure the US border.

The first unarmed Predator began patrolling the border the next year. It was also in 2005 that DHS created OAM to manage CBP’s aerial and marine assets.

To direct the newly created Office of Air and Marine, DHS appointed Michael C. Kostelnik, a retired Air Force major general, who oversaw its drone procurement from General Atomics. Kostelnik resigned in late 2012, and was succeeded by retired Maj. Gen. Randolph Alles. Other retired military officers have also dominated the leadership ranks of OAM since the agency’s founding and since the creation of the drone program.

Counterterrorism has been the explicit mission and No. 1 stated priority of CBP’s drone program. According to CBP, the program “focuses operations on the CBP priority mission of anti-terrorism by helping to identify and intercept potential terrorists and illegal cross-border activity.”

In the drone procurement, the DHS has permitted CBP to rely on one supplier for its drones and has not subjected drone purchasing to open bidding. Since 2004, CBP has maintained sole-source contracts with General Atomics for the Predator and Guardian drones.

Expensive and Ineffective

With barely contained contempt, the OIG’s report focuses on three specific problem areas: 1) lack of performance measures and lack of results, 2) the disguised costs of running a program and the alarming absence of any cost-benefit evaluations, and 3) the deception and duplicity of CBP, the operations of which are only a faint shadow of what CBP says its drones do.

Two documents – Concept of Operations (CONOPS) and UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems) Mission Statement – do provide a framework for OAM operations, including the drone program. CONOPS, however, is more a description of operational goals – such as “operating over land borders and over coastal waters” and “working with the Federal Aviation Administration” to open more national airspace to DHS drones – than a plan that links operations to strategic goals.

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CBP has tacitly declined to compare the effectiveness of the various instruments of its border control mission.

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The OIG found no evidence that CBP/OAM has formulated performance measures that would allow DHS to determine that the drone program has indeed contributed to any increase in border security. “CBP has invested significant funds in a program that has not achieved the expected results, and it cannot demonstrate how much the program has improved border security,” the OIG concluded.

Much to the consternation of the GAO and OIG, CBP has tacitly declined – without explicitly refusing – to compare the effectiveness of the various instruments of its border control mission.

In the case of OAM, for example, it has never compared the varying effectiveness and cost-benefit ratios of its more than two-dozen types of aircraft – from light turbo-prop planes and one-pilot helicopters, to the P-3 all-weather surveillance planes, Black Hawk helicopters, and Predator and Guardian drones. Nor has CBP/OAM evaluated the comparative effectiveness of drones, ranging from ones that can be hauled in the back of Border Patrol pickups to the multimillion-dollar drones it purchases from the major military contractor General Atomics.

In the past, CBP regularly released apprehension and drug seizure statistics purporting to demonstrate the effectiveness of the drone program. But the low number of immigrant apprehensions, the failure of CBP to prove that these immigrants were “transnational criminals” as it claimed and the paltry quantity of illegal drugs (exclusively marijuana) undermined rather than supported CBP’s case for drones. What is more, CBP would not clarify whether these arrests and seizures would have occurred without drone involvement and CBP declined to provide any way to verify its numbers of purported apprehensions and arrests.

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Interviews with Border Patrol agents suggest that most of the cited apprehensions would have occurred without drone surveillance.

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CBP did provide the OIG with apprehension and drug seizure numbers “associated” with the drone program. But the small numbers did nothing to bolster CBP’s argument that drones are essential for effective border control. According to OIG, the extent of increased apprehensions of undocumented border crossers is uncertain, but compared to CBP’s total number of apprehensions, OAM attributed relatively few to unmanned aircraft operations. Furthermore, the report noted that interviews with Border Patrol agents suggest that most of the cited apprehensions would have occurred without drone surveillance.

Although the CBP/OAM drone program has been operating since 2005, the total costs of the program remain unknown because of CBP’s continuing failure to release a full accounting of the funds allocated to purchase, maintain and operate the drones. Also missing in the accounting are the costs of reviewing the thousands of hours of surveillance footage.

Sloppy accounting and CBP/OAM secrecy have made it impossible to determine the full cost of the program.

CBP has consistently lowballed the costs of operating drones, stating that it costs about $2,500 per hour while actual cost is $12,250. CBP did not include key costs such as operator salaries, overhead and the payloads (surveillance and communications devices) the drones carry. The OIG found that CBP/OAM spent $62.5 million in 2013 to operate its drones – about five times as much as the CBP reported.

Since 2004, CBP has purchased 11 Predator drones (including two Guardians). It has lost two of these $18-20 million drones in crashes, and currently operates nine drones along the northern and southern borders, and over the Atlantic and Pacific approaches to the United States.

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The OIG found that CBP/OAM spent $62.5 million in 2013 to operate its drones – about five times as the amount the CBP reported.

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 The OIG found that OAM put drones in the air only 22 percent of the time it had projected. CBP pointed to two problems that limit flight time: bad weather (drones cannot be flown in bad weather or when there is cloud cover) and shortages in piloting and maintenance crews. But keeping drones grounded most of the time might also be attributed to CBP/OAM’s inability to find a constructive use for the drone fleet.

CBP routinely declares that the drones operated by OAM conduct surveillance over the entire Southwest border. However, OIG found that virtually all of the flights in 2013 were limited to a 100-mile section of the Arizona border and a 70-mile segment of the Texas border.

As part of its conclusions, OIG stated: “Given the cost of the Unmanned Aircraft System program and its unproven effectiveness, CBP should reconsider its plan to expand the program. The $443 million that CBP plans to spend [by way of sole-source contracts with General Atomics] on program expansion could be put to better use by investing in alternatives, such as manned aircraft and ground surveillance assets,” OIG observed.

Changing Objectives of Drone Surveillance

Since the drone program’s first year, CBP and OAM have struggled to describe how exactly drone surveillance contributes to improved border control.

Promising constant surveillance of the border by drones, CBP/OAM officials have repeatedly asserted in congressional testimony that drones are “force-multipliers” – meaning that they would improve the performance of the Border Patrol agents by relaying images of undocumented border crossers to agents in the field.

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OIG found no evidence drones resulted in lower costs or improvement in Border Patrol efficiency.

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 But CBP/OAM was never able to document this force-multiplier effect, and OIG found no evidence drones resulted in lower costs or improvement in Border Patrol efficiency. According to the UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems) Mission Need Statement, OAM expected unmanned aircraft to reduce border surveillance costs by 25 to 50 percent per mile. But OAM does not track this metric or any other, OIG observed, and consequently cannot demonstrate that the unmanned aircraft have reduced the cost of border surveillance.

Another common description of drone operations offered by CBP/OAM was that drones did not fly aimlessly over the border, but mostly responded to alerts from ground sensors. But CBP/OAM was unable to document the success of this drone operation strategy, and later acknowledged that ground sensors were unreliable indicators of illegal border crossings.

Over the past couple of years, CBP/OAM has offered a new description of drone operations. Rather than spotting undocumented border crossers or responding to ground sensors, drone surveillance provides “change detection capability.” Repeated flights by drones over the same areas of the border allow the Border Patrol to identify “emergent threats” by detecting changes along the border, such as cut fences or tire tracks.

However, the surveillance systems on the unmanned aerial systems purchased from General Atomics do not provide the detailed images that would permit successful “change detection.” CBP/OAM’s solution has been to increase its drone program spending by buying a radar sensor system called Vehicle and Dismount Exploitation Radar (VADER).

The system was developed for use in Iraq and Afghanistan to give the military and CIA the ability to distinguish humans from animals in high altitudes and to direct cameras to track the targeted humans and vehicles. CBP began including VADER in its drone program in 2011 when the Department of Defense loaned the agency two systems.

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Despite the continued rhetorical commitment to counterterrorism as its primary mission, CBP risk reports refer to sections of the border with high undocumented immigration.

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 According Northrup Grumman, the manufacturer of the VADER systems, VADER allows “accurate Ground Moving Target Indicator (GMTI) and Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) imagery to be readily available to ground commanders in real time.”

One problem with the VADER system is its cost. CBP/OAM bought two VADERs for $16.8 million. In addition, CBP spent $1.7 million in contract support for one year. According to OIG, CBP/OAM plans to buy four more VADER sensors along with the necessary contracted operational support.

Boasting of its new surveillance capacity, CBP stated in 2012 that VADER systems would “dramatically” affect border operations in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) hailed CBP’s acquisition of the VADER systems, calling them “an incredible technology tool.” But problems other than their high cost undercut CBP’s argument that VADER systems will boost border security. Contrary to what CBP promised, the radar sensors have been limited to a small stretch of the border patrolled by one Border Patrol station.

What is more, CBP is at a loss to describe their worth. Summing up the effectiveness problem of the VADERs, OIG observed that “CBP’s Office of Intelligence and Investigative Liaison (OIIL) could not analyze the sensor data as described in CBP’s June 2012 VADER CONOPS to determine entry points, trails, and fence breakthroughs along other areas of the border.”

Immigration and Drones Closely Linked

CBP and OAM assert that drone missions are “risk-based.” However, despite the continued rhetorical commitment to counterterrorism as its primary mission, CBP rarely refers to terrorism when describing border operations. Instead, when CBP refers to risks, it points to the sections of the border with the most undocumented immigration.

As the OIG report makes clear, the CBP drone program is immigrant-focused. There is not one mention in the recent report of the drone program’s role in counterterrorism. The only concrete result of the drone program cited by CBP and the OIG was the small number of immigrants purportedly apprehended with the assistance of drone surveillance. OIG, however, noted that Border Patrol agents interviewed by investigators observed that these immigrants likely would have been apprehended without drone assistance.

The expansion of the border drone program, however, has been less tied to the apprehension of immigrants in the U.S. borderlands than to U.S. immigration policy.

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Despite critical evaluations regarding the high costs and dubious achievements of border drones, President Obama has repeatedly backed the border drone program in the administration’s requests for increased DHS funding.

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Since 2001, the Bush and Obama administrations have launched an array of new initiatives to demonstrate their commitment to “securing the border.” Generally, these initiatives have come at times of increased national anxiety about undocumented immigration, drug trafficking and drug-related violence in Mexico. Like the most prominent of these post-9/11 border security initiatives – the Secure Border Initiative of 2005 – the latest initiative is closely associated with immigration policy and its reform.

Over the past year, the Obama administration has on two occasions called for greater border security, including drone operations on the U.S.-Mexico border: the humanitarian crisis of Central American refugees crossing the border illegally last summer, and the lead-up to and announcement of the president’s executive order legalizing the immigration status of 5 million immigrants.

In the midst of the humanitarian and political crisis caused by the influx of Central American child refugees last summer, President Obama petitioned Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency funding to support a “sustained border security surge.” The proposal included $39 million for increased aerial surveillance, including funding for 16 additional drone crews.

Despite an expanding library of critical evaluation reports on the high costs and dubious achievements of border drones, President Obama has repeatedly backed the border drone program in the administration’s requests for increased Department of Homeland Security funding.

The president’s November 2014 executive order on immigration was carefully orchestrated to include a commitment to more border security, including increased drone surveillance. In the November 20 announcement of the immigration reform order, the White House, borrowing Nixon-era rhetoric about tough law enforcement, stressed that the Obama administration would be “cracking down on illegal immigration at the border.” And borrowing military language, the White House stated that the new border security surge would include a newly centralized “command-and-control” approach to securing the border.

In anticipation of the president’s November 2014 executive order on immigration, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson in October 2014 unveiled the administration’s new border security plan, titled the Southern Border and Approaches Campaign.

Droning on About Border Security

The clumsily named Southern Border and Approaches Campaign offers nothing new other than more border security bureaucracy and an infusion of the latest military jargon – although promising “an even more secure border and a smart strategy to get there.”

From the start of his tenure as DHS chief, Johnson has not only supported the drone program, but has also used military concepts and terminology to define the department’s border security operations. Although lacking experience in border control, Johnson had been a key player in the Obama administration’s use of Predator drones for targeting killings.

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During his tenure as chief defense department lawyer, Jeh Johnson supported the Obama administration’s increased use of targeted drone strikes and helped develop a legal rationale for those killings.

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 The border security campaign, packaged by DHS as “Border Security for the 21st Century,” makes no substantive changes in border security tactics or strategy. All programs, including the failed drone program, remain part of the Southern Border and Approaches Campaign. However, if the president were to succeed in getting his supplemental funding request approved by Congress, the campaign would have at least a couple of billion dollars more to beef up existing programs with questionable results.

Before his DHS appointment, Johnson served successively as general counsel for the Air Force and Defense Department. During his 2009 to 2013 tenure as chief defense department lawyer, Johnson was a firm supporter of the Obama administration’s increased use of targeted drone strikes and helped develop a legal rationale for those killings, including for drone strikes targeting US citizens.

As part of the campaign, Johnson said DHS would form three new joint task forces: Joint Task Force East, Joint Task Force West and Joint Task Force Investigations. “We are discarding stove pipes,” declared Johnson, explaining that the new task forces would bring together the three DHS agencies involved in immigration enforcement, customs and border protection with the Coast Guard.

Not mentioned was the fact that numerous former and existing DHS task forces have brought together all these agencies as well as others such as the FBI and DEA. The creation of these joint task forces mirrors the surge within the U.S. armed forces in the emphasis on joint task forces and joint operations. The Doctrine for the Armed Forces of the United States (2013) uses the word “joint” 939 times.

Also contributing to the nebulous character of the Southern Border and Approaches Campaign is the use of other military terminology, such as “supported-supporting.” Describing how the new task forces will function, Johnson said: “These Task Forces should adopt a supported-supporting component model.” This military jargon, while not new, is gaining new currency, as is apparent in the 2013 doctrine.

Conclusions: Take Border Security off Autopilot

The DHS Inspector General’s report is an important addition to a growing library of governmental reports that have exposed the fallacies, inefficiencies, and ineffectiveness of Homeland Security’s border drone program. Together, these reports also reveal an alarming pattern of deception and delusion within Customs and Border Protection and its Office of Air and Marine.

The recent OIG report highlights the lack of transparency and accountability within the border drone program – a failing that has deepened as DHS has expanded the deployment of border drones since launching the program in 2004.

Yet, even in the wake of the scathing OIG report, there are no signs that CBP, DHS, Congress or the White House is backing away from the dysfunctional and massively expensive drone program.

The border drone program has received favored treatment by Congress (both Democrats and Republicans) and the White House (both Bush and Obama), even as CBP has proved unable to demonstrate that drones are effective instruments of border control.

Widespread support in federal government for the drone program does not necessarily demonstrate a conviction that Predators on the border are fundamental to border control. Rather, it is likely an indication of the prevalence of political calculations that hold that the more money spent on border security, the better and safer the homeland will be. For some, a corollary is that more border security buildup makes it politically easier to pitch immigration reform.

Given the continued support – and calls for increased funding – by both parties and the executive and legislative branches, CBP’s failure to revise or shut down the drone program is not surprising.

Even after the release of the devastating OIG review, the House Homeland Security Committee overwhelmingly sent on to a Congressional vote yet another border security bill that would add billions of dollars to the DHS for border control, including increased drone surveillance.

The “Secure Our Borders First Act,” introduced by committee chairman Michael McCaul, mandates that the Office of Air and Marine operate drones not less than 16 hours every day. The bill stipulates that CBP provide data on the number of immigrants apprehended and drugs seized as a result of drone surveillance, but includes no mention about how drones might be deployed in conjunction with DHS intelligence to “secure the border” against terrorists.

The “Secure Our Borders First Act” recognizes the immense cost of achieving “operational control” on the U.S.-Mexico border using drones and other tactical measures, which is why congressional border hawks intend to approve $1 billion annually in additional border funding over the next ten years.

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The Secure Our Borders First Act” would increase the use of border drones, even as CBP has proved unable to demonstrate that drones are effective instruments of border control.

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 As its budget has tripled and the number of Border Patrol agents doubled, CBP has adamantly insisted that all its border control instruments – boots on the ground, 18-foot steel walls, radiation detectors, electronic fences, drones etc. — are fundamental to securing the nation’s borders.

Setting realistic performance goals that can be used to measure the effectiveness of the CBP programs, as the OIG recommends, will be a major challenge for CBP and OAM, in part because it has no history of establishing performance measures.

Even more problematic is CBP/OAM’s lack of a clear and pragmatic definition of what constitutes a secure border.

Not addressed by the report are more fundamental problems that affect DHS and its two subsidiary agencies, CBP and OAM. At least part of the problem at CBP/OAM is the absence of a clearly defined mission. Symptomatic of this problem is the inability of DHS and CBP to define exactly what they mean by the terms “homeland security” and “border security,” as a January 2013 report by the Congressional Research Service pointed out.

Border control since 9/11 has been framed in terms of national security and counterterrorism. This strategic shift has resulted in an overreliance on military tactics, strategies, personnel and hardware, as well as military infrastructure, such as the military bases that host the border drones.

Yet the actual focus of border control is still apprehending unauthorized immigrants and seizing illegal drugs, resulting in a mismatch between the stated strategic mission and the field (and air) operations.

Future of Border Drones

The DHS Office of Inspector General deserves commendation for its frank and probing review of the border drone program. The damning title of the report, “CBP Drones are Dubious Achievers,” hints at the office’s overall disdain after reviewing the drone program.

Although the OIG’s recommendations go beyond the recommendations previous critical intra-governmental reports on the drone program, they fall short of the type of prescriptions that would save revenues and refocus CBP’s aerial and marine operations.

It is highly improbable that either the House or the Senate would consider the following facts-based and mission-focused recommendations. However, the Obama administration could conceivably reform its border policy, following its politically astute and justice-driven administrative reversals of previously uncompromising immigration policy.

Similarly, the Department of Homeland Security could conceivably reconfigure its current focus on unceasing border security buildups and shift its attention to actual and potential threats to U.S. homeland security, from both foreign and domestic-based terrorists.

It is becoming increasingly clear to the U.S. public–given the rising support for new drug and immigration policies, and new awareness that likely threats to homeland security will originate within U.S. national borders – that the type of drug, immigration, and counterterrorism operations that have dominated DHS since its post-9/11 creation have been misdirected, ineffective, and immensely expensive.

A department-wide critique of DHS is urgently needed but beyond the scope of this policy report. The following recommendations focus on the drone program and the CBP’s alarming lack of transparency and accountability.

Policy Recommendations:

1. Terminate the Border Drone Program: The OIG rightly recommends that DHS drop plans to increase the fleet to 24 drones. However, the findings of this and other reports — on the CBP drone program’s lack of effectiveness, absence of a clear mission focus, gaping cost-benefit disjuncture, and failure to demonstrate comparative advantage over other aerial assets – underscore that it is time to not only limit the program but to shut it down. It may be that there is a place for the use of smaller and less-expensive drones by Border Patrol agents as part of a more strategic and less-costly border control policy.

2. Re-evaluate U.S. Counter-Drug Strategy: CBP’s current drone fleet — both the Predators and marine-focused Guardians – are extensions of the failed U.S. drug war. CBP reports that virtually all of the drug seizures related to drone operations are marijuana. This comes at a time when marijuana is being legalized and decriminalized in many states and cities. The Obama administration should remove marijuana from the list of Schedule 1 illegal substances, and order that the DHS secretary end the department’s wasteful border security expenditures to enforce marijuana prohibition.

3. End Sole-Source Contracting and Limit Links with U.S. Military: The dysfunction of CBP’s drone program is only the result of mismanagement and lack of a clear mission focus. Most of the failures of the use of the military-grade Predators and Guardians can be attributed to the sole-source contracting arrangements with military contractor General Atomics and to the related misguided attempt to use military equipment, military strategies, military infrastructure, and military personnel to shape border control policies and operations. DHS must end this overreliance on the U.S. military and military contractors. In that way, DHS will have more freedom to rethink the mission priorities and operational strategies of homeland security and border security.

4. Corral the Herd of Border White Elephants: The Predator drones are the white elephants of a militarized border security buildup. But they exist among a herd of DHS white elephants bred by the post-9/11 border security buildups, including CBP’s radiation detection portals at border crossing, the various iterations of the virtual fence, and over-blown communications and command systems proposed by the Border Patrol. DHS should terminate the purchase and operations of all its border white elephants, and push back against congressional pressure to spend billions of dollars on programs and technology that do not substantially improve homeland security.

5. New Directions for Border Control and Border Security: The OIG’s revelations about the border drones should be used as an entry point for Congress, the administration, and the public to review the directions of border policy. There is an indisputable need for the government to control its national borders. But the major focus of border control is now, as it was prior to 9/11, the enforcement of immigration and drug war policies. CBP’s border control mission should reflect immigration, asylum, refugee, and drug policies that are better adjusted to the nation’s commitment to justice, sustainable economic progress, human rights, and personal rights. There are clear security issues involved in border policy. But national and homeland security considerations should not be the dominant framework to determine all aspects of border policy and border control operations. Instead, CBP needs to reexamine its operative definitions of risk and threat assessments, and in doing so refine and upgrade its terrorism-focused intelligence operations.

(Tom Barry is a senior analyst at the Center for International Policy, a contributor to the center’s Americas Program, and director of its TransBorder Project. A more extensive investigation of the border drone program is Barry’s Drones Over the Homeland: How Politics, Money and Lack of Oversight Have Sparked Drone Proliferation, and What We Can Do.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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