Border Drones: CBP Rejects Negative Audit As Congress Debates Funding Bill

By Lorne Matalon
January 21, 2015
Gerald L. Nino via Wickimedia Commons
A Customs and Border Protection Predator B drone. When drones were deployed eight years ago, CBP said they would patrol the entire Southwest border. The Inspector General at CBP's parent agency, DHS, claims the drones patrol 170 miles of the border in Arizona and Texas.

The Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general, an independent auditor, has issued a highly critical report on unmanned aircraft, or drones, that patrol the country’s borders, principally with Mexico.

Border missions fly out of Sierra Vista, Ariz., southeast of Tucson — the headquarters of the U.S. Army Intelligence Center at Fort Huachuca — or Corpus Christi, Texas.

The report says there is “little or no evidence” the nine Predator B drones are worth their expensive price tag. Predator B drones each cost $18 million while the eight-year-old drone program represents $62 million a year in taxpayer money.

The report has been published as Congress wrestles with a fast-approaching deadline to fund Homeland Security.

There are nine Predator B drones flown by Customs and Border along the border. Inspector General John Roth of CBP’s parent agency, DHS, says the drone program is ”a dubious achiever.”

“They were going to patrol the entire Southwest border," the Inspector General told CSPAN Television. "As it turns out, they’re only patrolling about 170 miles of that border.”

Roth said in 2013, drones helped catch a mere 2 percent of illegal border crossers.

CBP and the Inspector General dispute the cost to fly the drones.

The agency says it costs $2,500 an hour to fly a drone. Roth said when one adds the salaries of ground-based pilots and the cost of relaying information via satellites, the cost multiplies six-fold to about $12,000 per hour.

He says Congress should ask one question as it wrestles with the Feb. 27 deadline to craft a DHS funding bill.

“What are the results that you expect to receive as a result of the investment of this taxpayer money? They never established any performance standards. So they can’t tell if the program is a success or not,” Roth said.

Federal agents interviewed for this story reject Roth’s report. One told us “it’s extremely rare for us to disagree with our Inspector General.”

The agent, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said drones should be measured by detections, specifically by the tips they pass on to local law enforcement and not arrest statistics.

We spoke with another agent, the drone program’s Supervisory Air Interdiction Agent Erik Soykan. He works with what was formally called the Unmanned Aircraft Systems, or UAS.

“We respectfully disagree with OIG’s (Office of the Inspector General's) portrayal of the UAS program," he told the Fronteras Desk. "The report shows OIG has a fundamental lack of understanding of our mission and operations."

Here is CBP's formal response to a draft of the negative report.

Congress and the White House are squabbling over two increasingly intertwined issues, border security and immigration reform.

The White House said Jan. 12 that it will veto a DHS funding bill that includes immigration restrictions.

Local law enforcement won’t have a seat at the negotiating table.

But the chair of the Texas Border Sheriffs Coalition, Sheriff Rick McIvor, said taxpayer money would be better spent on smaller, inexpensive drones deployed on specific stretches of the border.

“I don’t understand how much time they can spend over our area. Are they just going through and then they’re coming back? I mean there’s a lot of country that you miss," McIvor said.

DHS Inspector General Roth said there’s “no evidence that the drones contribute to a more secure border and there is no reason to invest additional taxpayer funds at this time.”

Homeland Security has signaled its intent to expand the program by adding 14 more drones, which would cost $443 million. But the Office of Inspector General is not convinced that such a move is warranted:

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 on program expansion could be put to better use by investing in alternatives, such as manned aircraft and ground surveillance assets.