'No evidence' costly drones help secure border, Inspector General says

One of drones that Homeland Security uses to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border.
One of drones that Homeland Security uses to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border.
Fronteras Desk

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A $500 million Homeland Security program which uses military drones to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border is a "dubious achiever" which has assisted in just 2 percent of apprehensions, the agency's own inspector general has found.

The IG advises the department to put its money "to better use."

Some of the Inspector General's findings:

Inspector General John Roth called the drone program a "dubious achiever" and said it has fallen far short of being an asset to the effort to secure the nation's borders.

Roth said he sees "no evidence that the drones contribute to a more secure border, and there is no reason to invest additional taxpayer funds at this time." 

U.S. Customs and Border Enforcement rejects much of the IG's report, saying the audit used faulty accounting.

Instead of counting apprehensions, DHS says the IG should have counted "detections." Department spokesman Carlos Lazo says drones are used to give the department the big picture, identifying hotspots where it needs to send people.

Lazo added that the IG audit did not mention tips passed on to other law enforcement agencies. And it doesn't include one of the drone's other achievements: contributing to the seizure of nearly 50,000 pounds of marijuana in 2013, worth $122 million.

As to the per-hour cost of flying a drone, Lazo says the department followed federal guidelines about reporting, saying drone operators perform other jobs and their salaries are included in the overall budget.

Nine MQ-9 Reaper drones, built at San Diego's General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, patrol the U.S. Mexico border from Texas to California. It's the same model used by the Air Force to launch missile attacks on insurgents in Afghanistan.

A 10th border drone was ditched in the ocean in 2013 off San Diego after a malfunction. DHS says it plans to replace that 10th drone, but has no plans to purchase any more. The nonprofit Center for International Policy says the drones cost $20 million each, though Lazo says it's closer to $12 million. An earlier IG report puts the figure at $18 million.

The drones have their critics. Jay Stanley of the ACLU says drones raise "privacy and other policy issues and are the subject of extensive concern and controversy across the nation." He says if they're not even achieving their own aims "in any reasonably cost-effective manner, as the Inspector General has found, that's one more reason the program should be discontinued."

Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez (D-Anaheim) says there was a lot of discussion about new technology on the Border Security Subcommittee, and drones were seen as a possible answer to the challenge of patrolling vast areas of unfriendly terrain near the border.

Now with this second critical report from the Inspector General's office in three years, she concludes, "it may not be working, guys."

Sanchez supports a Congressional debate on the cost effectiveness of drones and the protection of civil rights. "It shouldn't be yes drones or no drones," she says, adding: "It should be 'when drones, how drones, why drones....is there something more effective than that for the particular situation we're trying to solve?'"

The cost issue will have to be sorted out soon: Because the GOP-led Congress wants to fight with President Obama over his executive action on immigration, funding for the Department of Homeland Security runs out at the end of February.