Drones and the Dream of Remote Control in the Borderlands
by JOSEPH NEVINS
Drones along the U.S. boundaries with Mexico and Canada are coming under criticism from an unexpected source: the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—or, more specifically, the department’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG). The critique helps open the door to those who oppose not only the increasing “eyes in the sky” in the borderlands, but also the larger apparatus of state surveillance and repression.
The OIG, charged with promoting “effectiveness, efficiency, and economy in the Department of Homeland Security’s programs and operations,” has undertaken an audit of the “unmanned aerial vehicle” program of U .S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). According to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, which obtained a draft audit of the OIG report, “[t]he nine Predators that help police America’s borders have yet to prove very useful in stopping contraband or illegal immigrants.”
DHS has spent more than $250 million over the last six years to purchase the fleet of remotely-piloted surveillance aircraft. At the same time, reports the Times, “border drones require an hour of maintenance for every hour they fly, cost more to operate than anticipated, and are frequently grounded by rain or other bad weather.”
At a recent “Drone Summit” in Washington, D.C. hosted by CodePink, Reprieve, and the Center for Constitutional Rights, analyst Tom Barry made a similar argument. He pointed out (as he done previously in writing) that for every 15 ground sensor “hits” to which CBP drones respond, about 12 are caused by wind, two by animals, and one by human beings.
More broadly, Barry states that that the CBP has failed to offer any documentation to support its claim that the drones are cost-effective and that they are “force multipliers”—in other words, that they enhance what individual Border Patrol agents can do. Instead, it seems, the use of the aircraft consumes personnel rather than freeing them up.
In addition to crews needed for launching and landing, piloting and navigation, a large number of people are needed for the management and analysis of the huge amount of data and images gathered by each drone. These tasks alone, says Barry, citing estimates from Michael Kostelnik, the head of CBP’s Office of Air and Marine, mean that 50 or more people are involved in a typical drone mission.
Such numbers led Barry at the Drone Summit to call upon DHS to suspend the drone program until an adequate cost-benefit analysis is conducted.
But what if it came to be shown that the Predators are actually cost-effective? Would they then be OK?
Medea Benjamin, one of the co-founders of CodePink and one of the organizers of the Washington, DC gathering, powerfully demonstrates the slippery slope that these “unmanned vehicles” embody, and the need to oppose them as a matter of principle as tools of warfare abroad—and, by extension, in the U.S. borderlands. In an important and valuable new book, Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control, Benjamin shows the dangers inherent in the militarized aircraft.
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