Border Drones: CBP Rejects Negative Audit As Congress Debates Funding Bill

The Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general, an independent auditor, has issued a critical report on unmanned aircraft, or drones, that patrol the country’s borders, principally with Mexico.

Border missions fly out of Sierra Vista, Arizona, headquarters of the U.S. Army Intelligence Center at Fort Huachuca, or Corpus Christi, Texas.

The report says there is “little or no evidence” the nine Predator B drones are worth their expensive price tag. The now eight-year-old drone program represents $62 million a year in taxpayer money.

The report has been published as Congress wrestles with an approaching deadline to fund Homeland Security.

There are nine Predator B drones flown by Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

Inspector General John Roth of CBP’s parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) says the drone program is ”a dubious achiever.”

“They were going to patrol the entire southwest border, the 2000 southwest border,” the Inspector General told CSPAN Television.

“As it turns out, they’re only patrolling about 170 miles of that border.”

Roth says than in 2013, drones helped catch a mere two percent of illegal border crossers.

CBP says the IG’s math is fuzzy. But there’s also a cost dispute.

Here is CBP’s formal written response to the report.

The agency says it costs $2500 an hour to fly a drone. Roth says when one adds the cost of the salaries of ground-based pilots, equipment and satellite costs, the cost multiplies to about $12,000 per hour.

He says Congress should ask one question as it wrestles with the February 27 2015 deadline to craft a DHS funding bill.

“What are the results that you expect to receive as a result of the investment of this taxpayer money? They never established any performance standards. So they can’t tell if the program is a success or not,” Roth said.

Federal agents we spoke with reject Roth’s report.

They say drones should be measured by detections, specifically by the tips they pass on to local law enforcement.

That point wasn’t addressed by the Office of the Inspector General, or OIG.

Supervisory Agent Interdiction Erik Soykan is with what’s formally called the Unmanned Aircraft Systems, or UAS.

He uses the abbreviation OIG to mean the Office of the Inspector General.

“We respectfully disagree with OIG’s portrayal of the UAS program. The report shows OIG has a fundamental lack of understanding of our mission and operations,” he said.

Congress and the White House are squabbling over two increasingly intertwined issues, border security and immigration reform.

The White House said January 12 2015 that it will veto a DHS funding bill that includes immigration restrictions.

Local law enforcement won’t have a seat at the negotiating table.

But the chair of the Texas Border Sheriffs Coalition, Sheriff Rick McIvor, says taxpayer money would be better spent on smaller, inexpensive drones deployed on specific stretches of the border.

He has no issues with the CPB program and says CPB is performing a difficult job under challenging conditions. But he questions the impact of a program that has not met the standards of performance it set for itself when the program began eight years ago.

“I don’t understand how much time they can spend over our area. Are they just going through and then they’re coming back? I mean there’s a lot of country that you miss,” he said.

DHS Inspector General Roth says there’s “no evidence that the drones contribute to a more secure border and there is no reason to invest additional taxpayer funds at this time.”

This story was reported by Lorne Matalon, in collaboration with Fronteras, The Changing America Desk, a consortium of NPR member stations in the Southwest.

This story was reported by Lorne Matalon, in collaboration with Fronteras, The Changing America Desk, a consortium of NPR member stations in the Southwest.

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