As Senate Plans to Double-Down, New Report Calls Border Drones 'Absurd'
New immigration law puts focus on using drones to monitor border activity, but data shows huge cost outlays with paltry results
As the new immigration reform bill moving through the US Senate puts aerial drones at the center of a beefed-up militarized approach to border security, a new report shows that the existing drone-border program has proved an "inefficient, costly and absurd approach" to monitoring the border or enforcing current immigration laws.
The new report—Drones over the Homeland—produced by the Center for International Policy, "reveals how the military-industrial complex and the emergence of the homeland security apparatus have put border drones at the forefront of the intensifying public debate about the proper role of drones domestically. "
Specifically, the report challenges what it discovered were "dubious assertions and myths that DHS wields in presentations to the public and Congress" to justify the border-drone program, which it called "poorly conceived, grossly ineffective and entirely nonstrategic."
As ABC News reports, the available statistics show little in results, given the enormous cost of operating even a small drone fleet along the border:
After more than 5,700 hours of flying time last year — at a total operating cost of at least $18 million — drones helped agents confiscate just three percent of all drugs seized along the border last year.
And illegal border crossers? The drones helped agents apprehend just 143 people out of 365,000 apprehensions last year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
And the Huffington Post reports:
The report's findings are of particular interest now, with Congress considering whether to increase funding for border drones as part of a comprehensive immigration reform package. Customs and Border Protection's drone fleet currently includes seven Predators and three Guardians. Under a $443.1 million contract the agency issued in 2012, it may gain 14 more drones in three years.
Tom Barry, lead author of the report, said it found "an inefficient, costly and absurd approach to border security and homeland security through the purchasing of Predator drones that were designed for military activity."
Despite the hundreds of millions spent by the agency for domestic drones, by Customs and Border Protection calculations, the weapons have played a supporting role in only 0.003 percent of drug seizures and 0.001 percent of illegal border crossing detentions.
Given those low numbers, Barry said, Customs and Border Protection has now switched to a new justification for its drone fleet: law enforcement and national security. The agency is promising to work with the Department of Defense or local law enforcement agencies. That, Barry argued, should be cause for concern.
"I think we should be afraid, in terms of this breaking down of the distinction between domestic law enforcement and national security and foreign affairs," Barry said. "That line has been criss-crossed many times with DHS."
To that point the CIP report tackles the issue of oversight and privacy concerns, which dovetails the actual effectiveness of drone technology with questions regarding the monitoring and accountability of such programs:
There is rising citizen concern about drones and privacy and civil rights violations. The prospective opening of national airspace to UAVs has sparked a surge of concern among many communities and states – eleven of which are considering legislation in 2013 that would restrict how police and other agencies would deploy drones. But paralleling new concern about the threats posed by drone proliferation is local and state interest in attracting new UAV testing facilities and airbases for the FAA and other federal entities.
FAA and industry projections about the number of UAVs (15,000 by 2020, 30,000 by 2030) that may be using national airspace – the same space used by all commercial and private aircraft – have sparked a surge of new congressional activism, with several new bills introduced by non-drone caucus members in the new Congress that respond to the new fears about drone proliferation. Yet there is no one committee in the House or the Senate that has assumed the responsibility for UAV oversight to lead the way toward creating a foundation of laws and regulations establishing a political framework for UAV use going forward.
At this point, there is no federal agency or congressional committee that is providing oversight over drone proliferation – whether in regard to U.S. drone exports, the expanding drone program of DHS, drone-related privacy concerns, or UAV use by private or public firms and agencies. Gerald Dillingham, top official of the Government Accountability Office, testified in Congress about this oversight conundrum. When asked which part of the federal government was responsible for regulating drone proliferation in the interest of public safety and civil rights, the GAO director said, “At best, we can say it’s unknown at this point.”