Congress Pushes Dubious Drone Program the DHS OIG Pans

By Dan Cadman on January 26, 2015

On January 6, the DHS Office of Inspector General issued a report panning use of unmanned aerial aircraft ("drones" in the vernacular). In a press release accompanying the report ("CBP Drones are Dubious Achievers") the OIG states, "After spending eight years and hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has yet to prove the value of its Unmanned Aircraft System (drone) program while drastically understating the costs." Then, to put a fine point on the findings of his office, DHS Inspector General John Roth appeared on C-SPAN's "Washington Journal" television show shortly after the report's issuance. Roth said that CBP has already spent $360 million on the drone program over the past eight years, breaking down to about $12,000 per hour — and yet has proven ineffectual for the 150 miles of border being surveilled with the aircraft.

Despite this, and Republican majorities in both chambers in the new Congress, two immigration-related bills that include funding for drones are moving through the House of Representatives — which retains the same old stale leadership incapable of reining in presidential overreach or restoring any kind of integrity to immigration law enforcement, whether at the border or in the interior.

One is the federal fiscal year 2015 appropriation for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), a nondescript recitation of programs and figures notable only for the extraordinary amount of money it proposes to provide to the various DHS agencies and components (since passed and moved on to the Senate).

The other is the Secure Our Border First Act of 2015, tellingly described by my colleague Jessica Vaughan as "an empty green suit".

The appropriations bill proposes to put forward more than three-quarters of a billion dollars for Customs and Border Protection (CBP) air and marine operations, including drones. (See Title III of the bill.) That's the macro picture.

On the micro side, Section 3(b) (Operational Control of the Border/Required Capability Deployment) of the SOBFA of 2015 — that acronym rolls trippingly off the tongue, doesn't it? — goes so far as to specify what kinds of air assets will be required by Border Patrol Sector. For instance, "Unmanned aerial vehicles with maritime surveillance capability" for the San Diego Sector and "Man-portable unmanned aerial vehicles" for the El Centro Sector, etc.

You'd think, with the amounts of money involved, that lawmakers, or at least their staff, would pay a modicum of attention to what's being said about the programs where they want to throw those bucks. Apparently they aren't.

I cannot say I have any deep-seated antipathy to the use of unmanned aircraft for patrol of the land and maritime border; to the contrary, there may indeed be a number of beneficial uses, especially in mountainous terrain or scorching desert wastelands during the dog days of summer. What is clear, though, is that a program using limited financial resources with such extraordinary abandon and nothing yet to show should not be expanded until there are clearly articulable and achievable goals.

Congressional leaders seem to be going through the motions simply to keep their more restive members from overt rebellion, meanwhile hoping the whole issue will just go away. (It won't.)

But in this winter of our discontent, throwing good money after bad appears to be the congressional leadership's method of appeasement du jour, at least where immigration is concerned. It's a way of trying to buy their way out of meaningful solutions or confronting, head-on, the administration's determination to effectively eliminate borders.