Border agency overextended on drone program

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The Homeland Security Department ordered so many drones it can’t keep them all flying and doesn’t have a good plan for how to use them, according to a new audit the department’s inspector general released Monday.

In a blunt assessment, investigators said Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Air and Marine has a fleet of nine “unmanned aircraft systems” and is awaiting a 10th — though it doesn’t have enough ground support and doesn’t have a good plan for prioritizing missions.

“CBP procured unmanned aircraft before implementing adequate plans,” the investigators said.

The Defense Department uses armed drones overseas in its war on terror, and a U.S. Navy drone crashed on Maryland’s Eastern Shore on Monday afternoon, according to the Associated Press.

American law enforcement agencies at all levels are also increasingly turning to drones for use in detecting or preventing crimes in the U.S. But they find themselves butting heads with civil libertarians who worry about intrusion into innocent citizens’ private lives.

The inspector general said given the number of aircraft, CBP should have been able to fly more than 10,000 hours of missions per year, but in the year under review the agency flew less than 4,000 hours.

Underscoring the ad hoc approach, the agency doesn’t have a dedicated budget for running drones, and has had to siphon money from other areas to keep the program afloat. Investigators said the budget woes mean future missions may have to be scrapped — yet the underfunded fleet continues to grow.

“Despite the current underutilization of unmanned aircraft, CBP received two additional aircraft in late 2011 and was awaiting delivery of a tenth aircraft in 2012,” the inspector general said.

In a statement, CBP officials said they accepted the auditor’s recommendations and will work to improve the program.

“CBP’s Unmanned Aircraft System program provides command, control, communication, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capability to support personnel and capabilities on the ground,” the agency said.

Since fiscal year 2004, when CBP conducted its first pilot study of using drones, the federal government has spent $240.6 million on the program, with each Predator B drone in the fleet costing about $14 million.

CBP uses drones to help it patrol along the country’s borders, with the agency saying they assist in looking for “potential terrorist and illegal cross-border activity.”

Drones are also stationed in Florida and Texas to help with maritime operations.

In addition to its own missions, CBP has drone missions for the Texas Rangers, the U.S. Forest Service, the FBI and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — the latter of which wanted video of dams, bridges and levees where flooding was occurring.

Investigators also said CBP, at the behest of the State Department, has held “discussions with another country on the use of unmanned aircraft.”

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