Dec 21, 2011 3 Comments ›› Pat Dollard
CORPUS CHRISTI, Tex. — In the dead of night, from a trailer humming with surveillance monitors, a pilot for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency was remotely flying a Predator drone more than 1,000 miles away.
From an altitude of 15,000 feet, over the desert ranchlands of Arizona, the drone’s all-seeing eyeball swiveled and powerful night-vision infrared cameras zeroed in on a pickup truck rattling along a washboard road.
“Hey, where’s that guy going?” the mission controller asked the drone’s camera operator, who toggled his joystick, glued to the monitors like a teenager with a Christmas morning Xbox.
This is the semi-covert cutting edge of homeland security, where federal law enforcement authorities are rapidly expanding a military-style unmanned aerial reconnaissance operation along the U.S.-Mexico border — a region that privacy watchdogs say includes a lot of American back yards.
Fans of the Predators say the $20 million aircraft are a perfect platform to keep a watchful eye on America’s rugged borders, but critics say the drones are expensive, invasive and finicky toys that have done little — compared with what Border Patrol agents do on the ground — to stem the flow of illegal crossers, drug smugglers or terrorists.
Over Arizona, the Predator circled a ranch, as unseen and silent as a hunting owl. On a bank of computer screens, the team watched the truck, which appeared in ghostly infrared black and white, turn and pull up by a mobile home. In the yard, three sleeping dogs quickly woke up, their tails wagging.
“Welcome home,” one of the agents said.
A popular security solution
Eight Predators fly for the Customs and Border Protection agency — five, and soon to be six, along the southwestern border. After a slow rollout that began in 2005, government drones now patrol most of the southern boundary, from Yuma, Ariz., to Brownsville, Tex.
To hear their supporters, Predators are the new, sexy, futuristic fix for immigration control. They are irresistible to border hawks and the “Drone Caucus” in Congress, whose interests in homeland security and defense contractors neatly dovetail to produce a must-have technology to meet the still-unrealized threat of spillover violence from Mexican drug cartels.
Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-Calif.) has said the drones are so popular that a Predator could be elected president. Texas Democrat Rep. Henry Cuellar pronounced domestic drones “invaluable.” Arizona’s Republican Gov. Jan Brewer called them “ideal for border security and counter-drug missions.” GOP presidential contender Texas Gov. Rick Perry argues that the solution to security along the frontier is not a border fence but more Predators.
In his trips to testify on Capitol Hill, Michael Kostelnik, the retired U.S. Air Force general and former test pilot who runs the Office of Air and Marine for the Border Protection service, said that he’s never been challenged in Congress about the appropriate use of domestic drones. “Instead the question is: Why can’t we have more of them in my district?” Kostelnik said.
Planning documents for the CBP envision as many as 24 Predators and their maritime variants in the air by 2016, giving the Border Protection agency the ability to put a drone up anywhere in the continental United States within three hours.
The drones, though operated by Customs and Border Protection, have been deployed to assist sister law enforcement agencies. This month, the Los Angeles Times reported that domestic Predators were used in North Dakota to help local police run down a trio of ordinary crime suspects in a cow pasture.
These unarmed Predator-Bs are the same unmanned aircraft known for lethal hunter-killer missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, except they don’t carry the missile package.
One of the first Predators deployed by the border service crashed in 2006 when its remote pilot, a contractor for the plane manufacturer General Atomics, turned off the engine by mistake. The downed plane missed a residential area by 1,000 feet.
Current U.S. protocols require the drones to stay on the American side of the Rio Grande. “We don’t do Mexico,” said Lothar Eckardt, director of the Homeland Security’s National Air Security Operations Center in Corpus Christi.
But the aerial platforms do peer a little over the fence into Mexico.
What can they see? “We can see cows, pigs, coyotes, sometimes rabbits,” Lothar said. “At 20,000 feet you can see windshield wipers, you can see if a person is running or walking, you can see backpacks, sometimes. We can see Border Patrol, but not their uniforms, and so we can communicate with them and say wave your arms, and that way we can distinguish between our guys and the bad guys.”
Privacy and cost concerns
Privacy watchdogs are concerned about the use of drones over domestic airspace. “The loss of privacy is real. You want to sunbathe in the nude on your own property? Now you can’t be sure nobody is watching you,” said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union. “Americans will have to wonder if our enthusiasm for catching illegal immigrants is worth the sacrificing our freedoms.”
U.S. courts allow law enforcement to conduct aerial surveillance from helicopters and airplanes, and privacy protections end when the public goes outside. The domestic Predator’s surveillance cameras do not allow them to see through windows.
Despite its initial reluctance, the Federal Aviation Administration allows the drones to fly a high-altitude corridor along the Mexican and Canadian borders but still forbids them over congested urban areas — for safety, not privacy, concerns. Because of the orientation of the runway at the Corpus Christi naval base, the Predators are grounded when the wind direction requires them to pass over a neighboring suburb.
The mission over the Arizona ranch lands last month was typical. The Predator was searching for scouts who hide in the brush and signal with a cellphone when smugglers can attempt to cross with a load of marijuana or humans. The drone did not find any scouts on this night. The night before, however, they helped the Border Patrol in Texas capture a dozen illegal migrants.
The Predators reached a milestone in June, having flown 10,000 hours. The Homeland Security Department reported their drone operations led to the apprehension of 4,865 undocumented immigrants and 238 drug smugglers since the program began six years ago.
Those numbers are not very impressive. Some 327,577 illegal migrants were caught at the southwest border in fiscal 2011, meaning the drones have contributed to tiny fraction of arrests.
With an hour of flight time costing $3,600, it costs about $7,054 for each illegal immigrant or smuggler caught, based on numbers calculated from a recent Government Accountability Office report to Congress. The government has spent $240 million buying and maintaining its domestic drones, which does not include their operation.
It is hard to put a dollar value on the services that the Predators can supply, Kostelnik said, citing as an example, a scenario in which a nuclear reactor, like the one in Japan damaged by the earthquake and tsunami, needed to be inspected from the air.
“What is the value of a ‘can’t be seen, can’t be heard’ technology, when you absolutely, really need it?” Kostelnik said. “The unmanned aircraft does things nothing else can do.”
The authors of the GAO report were not so sure.
They highlighted an obscure program called “Big Miguel” run by the Joint Task Force North out of the U.S. Army’s Biggs Field in El Paso that leased a piloted Cessna with an infrared sensor that cost $1.2 million for the year and assisted in the apprehension of 6,500 to 8,000 undocumented immigrants and seizure of $54 million in pot, according to defense officials. That would make the Big Miguel cost per undocumented immigrant caught about $230.
“Congress and the taxpayers ought to demand some kind of real cost-benefit analysis of drones,” said Tom Barry, trans-border project director at the Center for International Policy, a Washington think tank, who has studied the domestic Predator program. “My sense is that they would conclude these aircraft aren’t worth the money.”