Micah Zenko

Drone, Sweet Drone

The debate over domestic surveillance is heating up. But don't panic yet.

John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images

Although the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has been flying drones above U.S. borders for seven years, the drones’ current uses, and potential expansion thereof, are now a contentious political issue. Last week, a Navy Global Hawk surveillance drone crashed just off the coast of Maryland. The very next day Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky introduced the Preserving Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act of 2012, which would limit the federal uses of drones within the United States to patrolling borders, preventing "imminent danger to life," and responding to high risk of a terrorist attack. The day after that, a prominent technology blog declared: "Revealed: 64 Drone Bases on American Soil."

Can we all take a deep breath?

Yes, such headlines feed the justified worries of many Americans about how drones could be used within the United States. Like other first-world security services, CBP fulfills its mandate largely by substituting remote monitoring and surveillance technology for human eyeballs on the ground. Of particular concern now is the prospect of a fleet of drones used by CBP that could potentially spy on — or, in some extreme versions, bomb — U.S. citizens. The conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer summarized one line of criticism in a recent rant about the prospect of domestic drones:

I want a ban on this. Drones are instruments of war. The founders had a great aversion to any instruments of war, the use of the military, inside of the United States. They didn’t like standing armies. It has all kinds of statutes against using the army in the country. A drone is a high-tech version of an old Army-issue musket. It ought to be used in Somalia to hunt the bad guys. But not in America.

Americans are right to be deeply concerned about the seemingly inevitable adoption of drones by federal, state, and local law enforcement, as well as by corporations and academic researchers. Currently, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has provided approximately 300 certificates of authorization drones to fly over the United States, although some in the aerospace industry believe there could be as many as 30,000 in the skies by 2020. And the fears of many Americans are heightened by the lack of transparency and oversight of U.S. drone strikes abroad since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

But much of the anxiety surrounding CBP drones — intensified by the false, yet oft-repeated, claim that the Environmental Protection Agency used "military-style drone planes to secretly observe livestock operations" — is overblown.

The CBP’s reach is admittedly vast. It is the "largest law enforcement air force in the world," according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), with an air fleet comprising more than 270 manned aircraft — including modern Blackhawk helicopters and P-3 Orion maritime surveillance planes — as well as a total of nine unarmed Predator B drones, which were deployed to the southwest border in 2005 and the northern border in 2009. Of greater concern are mobile Blackhawks, which are vastly more capable than their Predator cousins. According to a CBP official‘s recent congressional testimony, "The new and converted Black Hawks offer greater speed and endurance, greater lift capacity, more sophisticated onboard data processing… the ideal platform for confronting border violence and supporting operations in hostile environments." Now that’s scary!

Yet despite its sizeable fleet of manned and unmanned aircraft, CBP is already unable to meet increasing border patrol demands — which include detecting illegal activity, conducting search-and-rescue missions, surveying natural disaster areas or Mississippi River levees, and transporting agents and equipment — on top of its day-to-day responsibilities, such as fostering trade and travel flows into the United States. The agency is responsible for guarding and monitoring 7,000 miles of shared borders with Mexico and Canada, 95,000 miles of shoreline, and 329 ports of entry. Even with a workforce of 60,000, CBP met just 73 percent of requests for its air assets in fiscal year 2010 — the goal is 95 percent — due to the lack of maintenance for aging aircraft, insufficient all-weather planes, and understaffing, according to the GAO. Surveillance drones offer the CBP a number of advantages over manned aircraft, such as longer mission duration over remote areas, while providing near real-time imagery via video cameras and thermal infrared and synthetic aperture radars. 

Although variants of the Predator are configured to carry armed missiles, it is important to note that CBP drones will not bomb U.S. citizens. There is a common misperception, perpetuated by the media, that all drones drop bombs. But less than 4 percent of the Pentagon’s 6,316 drones, for instance, are armed and capable of conducting strike missions. And in a voice vote regarding DHS funding on June 7, the House of Representatives stipulated: "None of the funds made available by this Act may be used for the purchase, operation, or maintenance of armed unmanned aerial vehicles."

The primary issue with CBP drones is not that they are used, but how they are used — specifically, that drones are rushed into the field before the requisite framework, plans, and resources are fully developed. A report released by the DHS inspector general in May found that "CBP procured unmanned aircraft before implementing adequate plans to do the following: achieve the desired level of operation; acquire sufficient funding to provide necessary operations, maintenance, and equipment; and coordinate and support stakeholder needs." At the same time, CBP Predator B drones cost more than three times more to fly per hour than their Department of Defense counterparts. Despite the high costs, some members of Congress — specifically the 58-member Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus — continue to push drones on the CBP. Last fall, Congress appropriated $32 million to the CBP to purchase three additional Predator drones, after which a CBP official acknowledged, "We didn’t ask for them."

As a result, CBP drones have had limited success in the field so far. In 2011, CBP drones helped to locate 7,600 pounds of marijuana, valued at a paltry $19 million. Drones also reportedly laid the groundwork for the apprehension of 4,865 undocumented immigrants between 2006 and 2011 — an underwhelming statistic considering that a total of 327,577 people were captured in 2011 alone.

The good news about domestic drones is that, unlike the "covert" missions conducted abroad by the Pentagon and CIA, there is a great deal of publicly available information detailing their bases, operational command and control, missions, and costs. And, in contrast to media portrayals, domestic drones used for CBP missions enjoy measured support among U.S. citizens. In a recent poll, 64 percent of respondents approved of the use of drones "to control illegal immigration on the nation’s border," and 80 percent "to help with search and rescue missions." (Sixty-seven percent were opposed to drones enforcing speed limits — even though manned aircraft already perform this function in 19 states across the country.)

If properly planned for and funded, drones can play a critical, niche role in monitoring U.S. borders. But if there is anything to be learned from America’s use of drones abroad, it is that mission creep follows. Once security forces have access to the near real-time video and radar surveillance that drones can provide, they become addicted — and subsequently develop new missions for how drones can be used. This is the reason that, in order to assure the protection of privacy and civil liberties, there must be rigorous, sustained, and effective oversight by Congress and the courts of all drones in the United States.

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