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Scathing audit on border agency drones comes as police interest rises

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Predator drone

A worker checks the camera on a Predator drone at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., before a 2007 mission.

Credit: Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

On Tuesday, Department of Homeland Security Inspector General John Roth released a scathing audit of U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s use of unmanned aerial vehicles to patrol the United States’ land and sea borders since 2007. Relying on documents, flight and incident reports and interviews with personnel, the inspector general concluded that there was no evidence that the agency's 10 unarmed Predator B drones had improved border security or aided in apprehensions or drug interdictions.

Furthermore, the inspector general’s report claims the border agency drastically underreported the cost of its drone program, finding the Predator B’s cost $12,255 per flight hour to operate, as opposed to the federal agency’s own calculation of $2,468 per hour. The program’s net cost for fiscal year 2013, according to the inspector general, was $62.5 million, as opposed to Customs and Border Protection’s calculation of $12 million – the inspector general found the $50 million difference alarming.

“Unless CBP fully discloses all operating costs, Congress and the public are unaware of all the resources committed to the Unmanned Aircraft System program,” the report states. “As a result, 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 critical report comes at a time when domestic law enforcement agencies are deepening their interest in unmanned aerial vehicles. Police departments around the country, including in Los Angeles, have purchased drones, though the Federal Aviation Administration has not yet granted them clearance to fly the vehicles. Customs and Border Protection’s Predator drones already have been used for domestic policing operations by federal agencies, including the FBI; state agencies such as the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Texas Department of Public Safety; and even local police in North Dakota. In some places, the pushback by civil libertarians has been fierce: The Seattle Police Department was forced to scrap its drone program in 2013 after sustained pushback from activists. The department’s two Draganflyer X6 drones later were donated to the Los Angeles Police Department.

Funding for drone purchases has come through state and federal homeland security grants, continuing a pattern of military-grade equipment getting into the hands of local law enforcement. The Center for Investigative Reporting first reported on the federal government’s role in facilitating the flow of such technology to police departments in 2012.

One argument law enforcement agencies have made for using drones is that the unmanned vehicles will improve their operational ability and save money that would instead be spent on costly helicopters. But Customs and Border Protection’s experience over the past eight years presents a cautionary tale: The inspector general’s audit found that the Predator B flights had minimal impact on migrant apprehensions and drug interdictions. Furthermore, the drones did not respond to ground sensors triggered by passing people or vehicles in heavy crossing areas, and the advanced radar system mounted on the drones was not used efficiently, nor did the border agency have adequate metrics to evaluate the use of such technology.

Customs and Border Protection is planning to spend $443 million to expand its unmanned aerial vehicle program and purchase 14 more Predator B vehicles. San Diego-based defense contractor General Atomics, which manufactures the Predator B vehicles, has benefited greatly from the program and is heavily involved in lobbying, spending more than $2.4 million on Capitol Hill in 2014 and over $3 million in 2013, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

This story was edited by Fernando Diaz and copy edited by Nikki Frick.

Ali Winston can be reached at awinston@cironline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @awinston.