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Dysfunctional Drones Underscore Mission Mess at Homeland Security

Wednesday, 21 January 2015 12:45 By Tom Barry, Truthout | News Analysis
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President Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson are committed to more drone surveillance of US borders. 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.

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 generously 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).

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.

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 - a plan that allows CBP/OAM to respond to emergencies and threats anywhere within the United States in three hours or less.

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.

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.

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 takes CBP/OAM to task for not providing a full accounting of the costs of the drone program and observes that the program has fallen far short of 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.

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.

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, which, according to CBP, "focuses operations on the CBP priority mission of anti-terrorism by helping to identify and intercept potential terrorists and illegal cross-border activity."

This counterterrorism mission and military ties might help explain why 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.

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

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.

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

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 didn't include such key costs as operator salaries, overhead and the payloads (surveillance and communications devices) the drones carry. The OIG found that CIP/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.

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

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 start of the drone program, 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.

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

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.

Despite the continued rhetorical commitment to counterterrorism as its primary mission, when CBP refers to risks, it points to the sections of the border with the most undocumented immigration.

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 US borderlands than to US immigration policy.

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 DHS funding.

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 US-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.

During his tenure as chief defense department lawyer, Jeh 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.

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.

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 US 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.

Border Security on Autopilot

There are no signs as of yet 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 a political dogma that holds that the more money spent on border security, the better and safer the homeland will be. For some, a corollary of this border security principle is that a continuing 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.

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

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 all 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.

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 infect DHS and its two subsidiary agencies, CBP and OAM. At least part of the problem at CBP/OAM is the absence of a clear and pragmatic 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 field (and air) operations.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Tom Barry

Tom Barry is a senior policy analyst at the Center for International Policy, where he directs the TransBorder project. Barry specializes in immigration policy, homeland security, border security and the outsourcing of national security. Barry's latest book is Border Wars, from MIT Press in September 2011. He blogs at borderlinesblog.blogspot.com.


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Dysfunctional Drones Underscore Mission Mess at Homeland Security

Wednesday, 21 January 2015 12:45 By Tom Barry, Truthout | News Analysis
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President Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson are committed to more drone surveillance of US borders. 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.

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 generously 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).

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.

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 - a plan that allows CBP/OAM to respond to emergencies and threats anywhere within the United States in three hours or less.

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.

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.

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 takes CBP/OAM to task for not providing a full accounting of the costs of the drone program and observes that the program has fallen far short of 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.

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.

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, which, according to CBP, "focuses operations on the CBP priority mission of anti-terrorism by helping to identify and intercept potential terrorists and illegal cross-border activity."

This counterterrorism mission and military ties might help explain why 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.

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

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.

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

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 didn't include such key costs as operator salaries, overhead and the payloads (surveillance and communications devices) the drones carry. The OIG found that CIP/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.

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

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 start of the drone program, 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.

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

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.

Despite the continued rhetorical commitment to counterterrorism as its primary mission, when CBP refers to risks, it points to the sections of the border with the most undocumented immigration.

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 US borderlands than to US immigration policy.

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 DHS funding.

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 US-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.

During his tenure as chief defense department lawyer, Jeh 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.

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.

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 US 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.

Border Security on Autopilot

There are no signs as of yet 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 a political dogma that holds that the more money spent on border security, the better and safer the homeland will be. For some, a corollary of this border security principle is that a continuing 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.

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

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 all 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.

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 infect DHS and its two subsidiary agencies, CBP and OAM. At least part of the problem at CBP/OAM is the absence of a clear and pragmatic 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 field (and air) operations.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Tom Barry

Tom Barry is a senior policy analyst at the Center for International Policy, where he directs the TransBorder project. Barry specializes in immigration policy, homeland security, border security and the outsourcing of national security. Barry's latest book is Border Wars, from MIT Press in September 2011. He blogs at borderlinesblog.blogspot.com.


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