Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Economic Stimulus Scandal at Remote Border Port: Where Waste and Security are Border Partners

Antelope Wells is the place to go if you want to see the Obama administration’s economic stimulus package at work.

Three years after the administration launched the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), the stimulus funds committed to Hidalgo County are still working. But some may question whether the investment in this tiny, unincorporated dot on the map—where the population apparently totals two people living in trailers—is the best use of tax dollars.

 Despite the $12.2 million construction project to build a high-tech and well-fortified port-of-entry on the US-Mexico border here, over the past three years fewer people are passing through. Also underway is another ARRA project—the construction of the first “Forward Operating Base” of the Border Patrol in New Mexico.

 (By the way, there are neither antelopes nor wells in Antelope Wells, which was named after a distant ranch.)

 To see your tax dollars at work and in the process see a bit of New Mexico, including the Big and Little Hatchet Mountains (which gave the town of Hachita its name), driving from Silver City, you head south by southeast about 140 miles. You’ll pass into Hidalgo County, back into Grant County, and then to the southern edge of Hidalgo County—and then on, if you dare, to the Sierra Occidental in Mexico.

On the way you will pass through Hachita, the southernmost “designated census location” in Grant County, and then pass nothing else for 45 more miles until you see the signs for the two stimulus projects at the border: the “ARRA Forward Operating Base” and the “ARRA Point of Entry.”

 Nonpartisan economists almost uniformly agree that Obama administration’s economic stimulus package helped the nation from falling deeper into the “Great Recession.” Many say, however, that much more federal spending—and more funding directly tied to employment creation and infrastructure improvement—is still needed to stimulate the nation out of its economic doldrums.

 It’s been three years since the administration launched ARRA, and many of us may have forgotten its specific goals, which, according to the government’s website, are: 1. Create new jobs and save existing ones; 2. Spur economic activity and invest in long-term growth; and 3. Foster unprecedented levels of accountability and transparency in government spending.

 Considering that the total ARRA stimulus package was $429 billion, the $17.5 million in ARRA assistance slated for Hidalgo County may not seem like much. Yet at a per capita level, the county—which has received $3,466 in per capita ARRA stimulus assistance—has made out much better than the national average ($1,400) or the New Mexico average ($1,826).

 No doubt that Hidalgo County needs recovery and investment—with a steadily declining population (dropping about 18% from 2000 to 2010), the high poverty rate (27%), the closing of the Playas smelter, and the array of ghost towns all underscoring the need.

But ARRA may not have been the county’s ticket to recovery.

Of the $17.5 million slated for the county, Antelope Wells has been the beneficiary of $13.5 million of this spending in the form of US Army Corps of Engineers projects for the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency of the Department of Homeland Security.

Roads are important in this sparsely populated county—about 1.5 residents per square mile—so it may make good economic sense that the second-largest ($2.2 million) recipient of ARRA funds for Hidalgo County was the New Mexico Department of Transportation.

Ranking third was Hidalgo Medical Services, which received $752,000. That grant included funding for the purchase of 30 computers and the training of staff to operate the computers.

Hachita isn’t in Hidalgo County, but it may as well be given how far it is from the county seat in Silver City. I had hoped to get gas and a Diet Coke there before heading the 45 miles south through the beautiful nothingness of the Hachita Valley to Antelope Wells. I knew that Hachita still had a post office (although that’s on the Postal Service’s short list of planned closures), so assumed optimistically that there would also be other services.

At first glance, though, Hachita seems a ghost town. 

 The old bar, store and gas station are boarded up, and the lovely stone Catholic church, St. Catherine’s, looks long-abandoned and is badly battered.

 The rusting hulk of the town’s original water tank stands on the town’s north side. I did find one resident—a self-identified retired Marine named Mike—sitting in front of his trailer. Looking around 360 degrees at the high desert framed by beckoning mountain ranges, he explained that only a few dozen people remained in Hachita, many having left, according to Mike, because of the dubious water quality of the old privately built water system.

 What keeps the town alive is the hope that the upgraded port of entry will mean more traffic, including an increased cattle trade, to and from Mexico, and the promise that the town will someday get a new water system as a result of a USDA grant, which is bogged down in the bureaucratic process.

Sandra Alarcon, the USDA officer in Las Cruces who is in charge of the project, acknowledged that the grant was authorized “some years ago” (she couldn’t remember when) and that the water in Hachita had “arsenic and other issues.” But she assured me that the grant to the Hachita Mutual Domestic Water Consumers Association, created in 2005, while still going through bureaucratic hurdles, would soon be underway.

Lyndon Sims, who directs the water association, says that getting the project going has been like “pushing on rope” but he too is hopeful that the requests for bids on the project would go out soon. When asked about concerns of “spillover violence” and crime associated with illegal border crossings, he was dismissive, saying that there was “very, very, very, very, very [I counted them] little crime” in Hachita, although some outlying ranches may occasionally experience break-ins by migrants looking for food or water.

Is there much hope for Hachita’s revival? Even with all the border-security funding, Sims said that “there are no jobs in the area, and I don’t see any coming our way.”

But construction is certainly booming in Antelope Wells. Border security is clearly a higher priority than human development in New Mexico’s Bootheel.

There was no southbound or northbound traffic during my visit, and the CBP agent at the old station estimated that they inspect about four cars a day coming from Mexico.
 No doubt these ARRA projects are creating new jobs and saving old ones—the first goal of the economic stimulus bill.

For the most part, these jobs have gone to MCC/Catamount, a Colorado design and construction firm created in 2008 to “provide comprehensive and diverse services to federal clients.” The ARRA Antelope Wells project has created 24 jobs, according to the government’s

With respect to “saving” jobs, the multimillion-dollar modernization of the most remote land port of entry on the southwestern border saved the Antelope Wells port from being considered for mothballing, given the low and declining crossing statistics.

The Antelope Wells land port project is part of a $420 million port-of-entry “modernization” undertaken by Customs and Border Protection after the ARRA funds became available.

The upsurge in border-security funding had already modernized and fortified most of the main CBP ports of entry, so the agency directed the stimulus funds toward modernizing 33 minor ports, mostly on the northern border and including three little-used ports of entry on the southwestern border. Many of the ports undergoing modernization averaged one to two arrests per year, and six were scheduled for closure before ARRA money appeared in the CBP account.

The initial ARRA allocation specified $9.6 million for the Antelope Wells port project, but that rose to $12.2 million by last September. 

The costs of the port of entry are rising, yet the traffic passing through this remote border crossing is declining—down 29% in 2011. Unlike the Santa Teresa and Columbus ports of entry, Antelope Wells registers no commercial or pedestrian traffic. According to the New Mexico Border Authority, 241 private vehicles crossed into New Mexico at Antelope Wells in November. 

Rumors in Hachita and among the construction crew in Antelope Wells have it that as soon as the new ARRA port of entry is open, traffic from El Paso and Santa Teresa will be diverted to Antelope Wells. But Marco Herrera of the state’s Border Authority doesn’t think that likely. “That would be three hours’ extra driving,” he says, noting too that Antelope Wells isn’t authorized to process commercial traffic.

 The low crossing numbers raise questions about the need for such an expensive modernization project, while other low numbers—the totals of apprehensions of illegal border crossers and drug seizures—along the New Mexico-Chihuahua border raise questions about the need for the ARRA Forward Operating Base in Antelope Wells.

No statistics are publicly available for CBP and Border Patrol arrests and seizures in the state’s Bootheel. Yet overall, the number of border arrests has plummeted over the past several years—even as the Border Patrol is set to expand its presence. 

 Immigrant arrests in the Border Patrol’s El Paso sector (which includes New Mexico) have dropped to near historic lows—about 20-30 a day, according to the Border Patrol. Seven years ago the Border Patrol arrested 76,000 along the New Mexico border—a figure that was down to 6,910 in 2011.

Border Patrol agents also seized 55,264 pounds of marijuana in New Mexico. To put that in perspective, overall marijuana seizures across the southwestern border were over 2 million pounds.

 Despite the sharply diminishing pressure on the New Mexico border—in the form of illegal immigrants and illegal drugs—the Border Patrol is beefing up its presence and infrastructure, especially in the Bootheel. A new Border Patrol district station is being built in Lordsburg to handle the quintupling of agents over the past several years. And, responding to public and political pressure to have the Border Patrol stationed closer to the border, the agency is replicating military strategy and terminology by establishing, for the first time, what it calls Forward Operating Bases or FOBs.

The $1.2 million FOB in Antelope Wells, which reportedly includes a heliport and horse corral, is well underway. The location of the second New Mexico FOB in the Animas Valley is still under dispute. 

The border security buildup—rising to nearly $11 billion spending annually—can also be seen closer to home in form of hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Department of Homeland Security for border patrolling and equipment purchases by the Grant County Sheriff’s Office.

Reaching Antelope Wells, not having seen another vehicle in the 45-mile stretch from Hachita, I was greeted by two Grant County patrol cars. The deputies explained that they were on border-security duty in partnership with the Border Patrol and the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office.

Anyone traveling the Bootheel or along the Chiricahuas down to Douglas, Ariz., will see first hand the proliferation of the Border Patrol. In Douglas, residents say that you can now find a Border Patrol agent (or sheriff’s deputy) hiding behind every cactus and mesquite bush. But actual recovery and reinvestment are harder to find.

(Article and photos by Tom Barry, originally published in Desert Exposure, at: 

Join Border Wars Policy Group to follow/discuss border security, immigrant imprisonment, and drug policy issues at:

Monday, January 30, 2012

Obama Just Says No to Answering Drug Prohibition Questions

Today YouTube ignored a question advocating marijuana legalization from a retired LAPD deputy chief of police that won twice as many votes as any other video question in the White House's "Your Interview with the President" competition on the Google-owned site. They did, however, find the time to get the president on record about late night snacking, singing and dancing, celebrating wedding anniversaries and playing tennis.  

Stephen Downing, the retired LAPD police officer and a board member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), had this to say about the site ignoring his question: "It's worse than silly that YouTube and Google would waste the time of the president and of the American people discussing things like midnight snacks and playing tennis when there is a much more pressing question on the minds of the people who took the time to participate in voting on submissions. A majority of Americans now support legalizing marijuana to de-fund cartels and gangs, lower incarceration and arrest rates and save scarce public resources, all while generating new much-needed tax revenue. The time to discuss this issue is now. We're tired of this serious public policy crisis being pushed aside or laughed off."

The top-voted video question from Downing is as follows: "Mr. President, my name is Stephen Downing, and I'm a retired deputy chief of police from the Los Angeles Police Department. From my 20 years of experience I have come to see our country’s drug policies as a failure and a complete waste of criminal justice resources. According to the Gallup Poll, the number of Americans who support legalizing and regulating marijuana now outnumbers those who support continuing prohibition. What do you say to this growing voter constituency that wants more changes to drug policy than you have delivered in your first term?" The question can be viewed at

Downing's question came in first place for video questions and ranked second out of all questions (with the overall top spot going to a text question about copyright infringement). Many of the other top-ranking questions were about marijuana policy or the failed "war on drugs," as has been the case every other time the White House has invited citizens to submit and vote on questions via the web.

Join Border Wars Policy Group to follow/discuss border security, immigrant imprisonment, and drug policy issues at: 

The Fantasy of Fantastic Border Security -- Drones to the Rescue

Published by Truthout at:   
Candice Miller, the Republican chair of the House Border and Marine Security Subcommittee of the House Homeland Security Committee, is effusive in her praise of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), referring to the drones at a March 15, 2011, hearing on Capitol Hill as "fantastic technology" that have proved "incredibly, incredibly successful in theater."
As the new chair of the subcommittee that oversees the air operations of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Miller has become one of the leading Congressional advocates of increased domestic drone deployment. Miller is a member of the House Unmanned Systems Caucus, which works to increase drone use and open US airspace to UAVs.
Over the past few years, Texas Republicans - most prominently Gov. Rick Perry, Sen. John Cornyn, and Congressman Michael McCaul - have been the among the leading high-profile proponents of drones for border security. Democratic Party politicians also generally share the mounting enthusiasm in Congress for this high-tech fix for border security.
Neither the high price tag for the Predator and Reaper drones - $20 million apiece - nor the inability of CBP to offer any substantive documentation of their successful deployment deters Congressional drone boosters.
In support of the department's use of drones for border security, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials routinely assert that drones are a "force multiplier" and that UAVs form an essential part of the "technological pillar" of border security. Congressional drone boosters commonly echo and amplify these DHS claims.
Yet, DHS assertions about the success, value and worth of drones in border security operations suffer a widening credibility gap six years after Predator drones first started patrolling the southwest border. UAVs may, as Miller states, be fantastic technology.
The purported achievements fall more into the realm of pure fantasy.
DHS has steadily expanded its drone fleet, and Congress has offered more cheerleading for drones than oversight. Due diligence and accountability are nowhere to be found.
What makes this absence of proper oversight and good management especially shocking is that the waste, inefficiency and strategic blunders of the drone escalation mirror the monumental failures of the SBInet "virtual fence" project - the other major DHS venture into high-tech border security.
CBP, which has eight drones in its UAV fleet with another two projected to be delivered by early 2012, projects a 24-drone fleet according to its strategic plan. Congressional members, alarmed about an array of perceived border threats, have pressured CBP to quickly increase its drone fleet and patrol areas despite CBP acknowledgements that it lacks the capacity and personnel to deploy the drones it already has.
Multiplying the Border Force
Since the inclusion in 2003 of immigration and border security agencies within the DHS, CBP has increasingly adopted a military lexicon to describe its operations. That makes sense since, for the first time, CBP had an explicit security mission - as evident in the wholesale adoption of the term "border security."
Over the past six years, CBP has spent more than $2 billion to create a "technological pillar" for border security. The other two border security pillars are personnel (Border Patrol and CBP agents) and infrastructure (mainly the border fence).
The two main components of CBP's new technological border security are the "virtual fence" project (first known as SBInet and now called the Alternative Technology Plan) and UAVs. In both cases, one from the ground and the other from the air, surveillance technology monitors stretches of the border and intelligence analysts attempt to determine if the received data includes evidence of illegal border crossings.
In both cases, CBP promotes these high-tech surveillance programs as "force multipliers." That's a Department of Defense term meaning a "capability that, when added to and employed by a combat force, significantly increases the combat potential of that force and thus enhances the probability of successful mission accomplishment." The claim, then, is that UAVs increase the capability of the Border Patrol by increasing the effective scope of their patrols. The ostensible logic of the force-multiplying effect of UAVs is persuasive, just as the CBP assertion that the virtual fence functions as a force multiplier has been presented as common sense - that technology enhances productivity.
One problem with the force-multiplier argument for border drone deployment is that DHS has never provided any data to support the assertion. The other main problem is that DHS probably cannot supply this supporting data because it is simply not true. UAVs might be better described as being manpower-intensive rather than force multipliers. At any time, it is more likely that CBP drones are sitting on US military bases along the border rather than serving as the Border Patrol's "eyes in the skies."
Why is that? Numerous reasons. Bad weather, including cloudy conditions and winds, is a common explanation. Another is that CBP and its Office of Air and Marine (OAM) lacks the personnel to operate the drones.
Attempting to explain why it is so challenging to get drones in the air, General Kostelnik, who as OAM chief directs CBP's drone program, expressed his frustration with preconceived notions about the unmanned character of UAVs:
We're not flying to the full potential, not because of aircraft or airspace limitations, but because we're still building the force. We're still growing the crews....
We are all here talking about unmanned. The real issues have nothing to do with the unmanned part. The real issues are all about the manned piece, and this is a manpower-intensive system.
The manpower-intensive character of UAVs, observed Kostelnik, is especially true for "the remotely piloted ones like the Predator." As the retired general explained, the Predators require two pilots for any one mission, but also large teams to handle launching and grounding. The manpower crunch obstructing more Predator patrols is also due to all the analysts required to do the "intel kind of things" with the steady stream of images transmitted by the drones.
Despite all the emphasis by CBP on the force-multiplying advantages of UAVs, neither Kostelnik nor anyone else at CBP has offered any public description of exactly how much "manpower" drone missions require.
Although UAVs have the capability of flying as much as 20 hours, most missions apparently average about ten hours, while the many training missions are still shorter.
During the same subcommittee meeting, Kostelnik was asked to give members some idea of the number of crew members required for a drone mission. According to Kostelnik, a typical drone mission requires three crews in addition to the two pilots - one handling navigation and the other directing the sensors - to handle launching, landing, and recovery.
But what makes UAV missions so "manpower-intensive" is the data management and analysis associated with the stream of images flowing into the control centers. "Taking the data takes more people," explained Kostelnik, and the "data that comes out of our aircraft is now sent to processing, exportation, and dissemination cells."
This complex data input component of UAV surveillance is what Kostelnik, using military jargon, called a "distributed infrastructure" that complements the command control centers on military bases where the pilots and aviation crews work. Another five full-time people are necessary, noted Kostelnik, to "tell the sensor operator where to look and the pilot where to fly."
The OAM chief estimates that there could be 50 people involved in a typical drone mission.
Without even taking into account the number of Border Patrol agents deployed in planes, helicopters and ground vehicles, the OAM chief estimated that UAVs depend on teams of 50 or more. Counting those agents that hunt down suspected illegal border crossers, it's likely that more than 100 Border Patrol agents and other support staff would be involved in any one UAV surveillance incident.
Although CBP officials have repeatedly testified in Congress about the progress and success of the drone program, the CBP has not produced any hard information about the numbers of men and women involved in a typical UAV-driven border arrest or drug seizure.
Drones may be, as Congressman Miller says, a "fantastic technology." But that doesn't mean that they are a "force multiplier" as DHS repeatedly asserts.
Even if DHS could demonstrate that the Predators reduce the number of Border Patrol agents needed to effectively patrol US borders, the DHS should still be required to justify the $20 million it spends for a Predator and its control system. If it were a responsible steward of government revenues, it should provide data showing that drone surveillance is at least as effective as surveillance by manned light aircraft or by Border Patrol officers on the ground.
Yet, none of the numerous Congressional DHS oversight committees have demanded such an accounting from DHS and CBP, and DHS has ramped up the border drone program without undertaking such a cost-benefit evaluation.
One reason for this lack of due diligence is the boyish enthusiasm in Congress and among border politicians for this new technological toy in their border security playground.
Reporting for The Washington Post, William Booth brought attention to this uncritical drone boosterism.
"In his trips to testify on Capitol Hill," wrote Booth, "Michael Kostelnik, the retired Air Force general and former test pilot who runs the Office of Air and Marine for the CBP, said he has never been challenged in Congress about the appropriate use of domestic drones. "Instead, the question is: 'Why can't we have more of them in my district?' Kostelnik said."

Join Border Wars Policy Group to follow/discuss border security, immigrant imprisonment, and drug policy issues at: 

Republicans Waking Up in Florida to New American Reality (Latinos Vote Too)

From MIT Press Posting, January 30

Border warsTom Barry, author of Border Wars and director of the TransBorder Project at the Center for International Policy in Washington, DC., comments on Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney’s recent clash over immigration in a CNN Republican debate in Florida. He blogs at Border Lines.

Florida is mired in a swamp of housing foreclosures and in a stagnant economy.
But last week it was the state’s demographics – the growing Latino population, constituting 70% of the voters in the Miami-Dade area – that proved the first wake-up call to the leading Republican presidential candidates.  If the GOP is to retake the White House, it needs to wake up to and accept the new reality of America.
Newt Gingrich, recognizing Mitt Romney’s vulnerability among Latinos because of his previously harsh anti-illegal immigrant rhetoric, called out Romney as being “anti-immigrant” in a television ad that appeared prior to the debates last week in Florida (which he later withdrew after being criticized by Sen. Marco Rubio).
Romney fired back, saying that the “idea that I’m anti-immigrant is repulsive.”
Latinos represent a large national voting bloc – constituting 16% of the population and 22 million potential voters -- as well as a key constituency in swing states such as New Mexico, Nevada, and Florida.
In his attempt to appeal to conservative Republican constituencies in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, Romney sought to establish his anti-illegal immigrant credentials, taking hard line positions against legalization and the Dream Act (which Latinos overwhelmingly support).
Switching gears and policy stances – which comes easily to the former Massachusetts governor – Romney during the last two debates and in other Florida forums desperately attempted to reposition himself as a pro-Latino, pro-immigration candidate. Although burdened by his English-first policy statements and slurs about Spanish, Gingrich has maintained a more nuanced position on immigration reform, including support for the regularization of the status of illegal immigrants (although not citizenship).
At a September debate in Orlando, Governor Rick Perry criticized Romney’s hardline stance against in-state tuition for immigrant children, saying: “I don’t think you have a heart.” Echoing that line of attack, Gingrich, seeking the high moral ground (and the Latino vote), charged that Romney’s call for harsh immigration-enforcement policies (which won Romney the endorsement of leading anti-immigrant ideologue Kris Kobach) that would encourage “self-deportation” as “inhumane.”
What, of course, remains to be seen is if the widespread anti-status quo sentiment in America will persuade Latinos and others to vote Republican this November despite the heartless of now-standard party positions on immigration and immigrants – and on the country’s widening class and ethnic divides.

Join Border Wars Policy Group to follow/discuss border security, immigrant imprisonment, and drug policy issues at: 

Friday, January 20, 2012

Drone Proliferation: The Curve and the Conjuncture

(The following is a response by Tom Barry posted in the forum on drone warfare sponsored by the Cato Institute, and found here.)

Israeli Heron UAV

Although the United States has led the way in drone proliferation, Americans are not alone in addressing the issues and challenges associated with the new weapons, surveillance, and intelligence systems. This Cato Unbound forum is stirring “strong passions” and “vigorous debate” about the morality and strategic value of drones—passions and debate that Cortright contends are already spreading in America.

While the debate is certainly starting to simmer on this side of the Atlantic—although manifestly not in Congress or within the executive branch—the public policy discussions are fortunately more advanced in the United Kingdom. Our own discussion can benefit from the excellent European publications and forums about drone warfare and drone surveillance.

One reason for this more developed discussion in Europe, especially in the UK, is the convergence of concerns about the “surveillance society” and persisting questions about the British Army’s and NATO’s integration of drones into their overseas operations—along with Britain’s partnerships with Israel in drone manufacturing and testing.

Playing a key role in this debate is a nonprofit group called Drone Wars UK, which released in January 2012 a valuable overview of drone warfare issues in a special report titled Drone Wars Briefing. The briefing includes a helpful review of the noncombatant death reports in Pakistan, discussion of the expanding incidence of extrajudicial drone strikes by the CIA, and a summary of the UK’s program of Remotely Piloted Aerial Systems (RPAS). The report makes a strong case that “we need a serious, public – and fully informed – debate on all these issues and to ensure there is full public accountability for their use.” Aside from the UK’s military intervention in South Asia, another connection, of course, is that its own drones are also piloted from the Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.

The publication last year by Pax Christi/Netherlands of Does Unmanned Make Unacceptable? – Exploring the Debate on Using Drones and Robots in Warfare also points to the increasingly vibrant debate in Europe – one that can help inform the incipient public and policy debate at home.

What is striking, at least to me, about this forum is the deep divide that separates Cortright’s concerns, expressed in “License to Kill,” from the near-uncritical support of drone warfare expressed by the other responders.

Cortright’s concerns both about the morality of remotely controlled warfare and about the geographical distance and emotional disconnection from killing will contribute to increased military and CIA interventions contrast sharply—shockingly in my opinion—with enthusiasm for the potential of these high-tech systems not only to reduce civilian casualties by precise targeting but also to respond to humanitarian emergencies.

Caution and Skepticism versus Confidence and Enthusiasm

Obviously, the central problem is that the discussion brings together two distinct philosophical and strategic paradigms—which mostly clash, leaving little room for a bit of consensus and concordance.

To avoid this unfortunate breach, we would have benefited if Cortright had anticipated this communication problem by evaluating more forthrightly and dispassionately the strategic and tactical benefits of increased drone deployment across the range of missions—from intelligence gathering and reconnaissance to targeted missile strikes.

But the debate is further obstructed by type of facile dismissal by Wittes and Singh, and by Goure, of the proposition that the emergence of drone warfare changes little.

“Drones are a weapon like any other weapon,” write Wittes and Singh, pointing to a purported direct evolutionary line from spear to Predator. Goure asserts, “There is no evidence that armed drones have reduced the political inhibitions against the use of deadly force.” Such categorical and simplistic conclusions close the door to the kind of public policy debate that this forum should encourage and that is urgently needed in America. If the CIA can kill targets covertly by using drone-launched missiles rather than by initiating covert actions by infiltrating agents or special operations, political inhibitions fade.

The two security paradigms that are loggerheads in this forum were underscored by the concluding sentence of the Wittes and Singh essay: “Indeed, the question is not whether we will live in a world of highly proliferated technologies of robotic attack. It is whether the United States is going to be ahead of the curve or behind it.”

That’s the paradigm of militarism—persuasive if you believe that ever-increasing U.S. military development of new high-tech weaponry ensures our national security (and yet there is recent U.S. security history to assail this traditional assumption by militarists). Then there is another paradigm in which Cortright apparently situates himself, namely that U.S. security is best served when it aims to stay ahead of the curve with respect to arms-control agreements, international frameworks for just wars and interventions, international sanctions, and protection for noncombatants. This counter-security paradigm wouldn’t necessarily dismiss the need for a strong drone and anti-drone capacity within the U.S. security apparatus, although presumably it would place greater emphasis on seeking more diplomatic, economic, and social solutions to security and political tensions.

Thus far, however, the Obama administration has not stayed ahead of this curve in visionary international leadership—the place where the U.S. has historically often been in the vanguard, though in fits and starts.

Earlier this month the president announced a shift in U.S. military strategy, including the shedding of “outdated Cold War systems” in favor of the high-tech instruments and conflicts of the future—including the aptly denominated “shadow wars.” This evolution in military strategy, including the increased reliance on drones and special operations (and presumably a continuing pattern of extra-judicial killings by drone strikes around the globe) may, as its supporters contend, be exactly the course the U.S. military believes it needs to ensure national and global security.

Whether strategically right or not, this is a shift that clearly calls out for the kind of moral, ethical, and legal scrutiny that Cortright advocates. One can only hope that drone proponents will also recognize this need – although so far it’s not in evidence in this forum. Assertions that a weapon is a weapon is a weapon dismiss the evident truth of this new conjuncture in national and global security.

Meanwhile, we can confidently leave any “hand-wringing” about the fears of eroding U.S. military dominance to the busy hands and hearty handshakes of the still thriving military-industrial complex.

Relying on their capable lobbyists and on their congressional and Pentagon sympathizers, General Atomics, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and the other companies in the flourishing drone industry—flush with military and homeland security contracts for drones—will surely do their best, without our help, to keep from falling behind the high-tech weapons curve.

Join Border Wars Policy Group to follow/discuss border security, immigrant imprisonment, and drug policy issues at: 

Drones Hunt Immigrants and Marijuana Backpackers -- and Wind-triggered Ground Sensors

By Tom Barry, AlterNet
Posted on January 16, 2012, Printed on January 20, 2012
The Department of Homeland Security says it needs a fleet of two-dozen Predator and Guardian drones to protect the homeland adequately. Designed for military use, 10 of these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are already patrolling U.S. borders in the hunt for unauthorized immigrants and illegal drugs.

DHS is building its drone fleet at a rapid pace despite its continuing inability to demonstrate their purported cost-effectiveness.  The unarmed Predator and Guardians (the maritime variant) cost about $20 million each. Yet DHS has little to show for its UAV spending spree other than stacks of seized marijuana and several thousand immigrants who crossed the border without visas.

Aside from a continuing funding bonanza for border security, to pursue its drone strategy DHS is also counting on the Federal Aviation Administration to continue authorizing the use of more domestic airspace by the unarmed drones. And FAA seems set to comply, having approved 35 of the 36 requests by the department’s Customs and Protection agency from 2005 to mid-2010. In congressional testimony in July 2010, the FAA said it was streamlining its authorization process for drones, including the hiring of 12 additional staff to process drone airspace requests.

While DHS is leading the way, national and local law enforcement agencies, as well as private entities, are demanding that FAA open the American skies to drone surveillance. Yet neither the FAA nor the Department of Transportation has been forthcoming in informing the U.S. public about the new robotic presence in the already congested American airways. The Electronic Frontier Foundation recently filed a suit against the transportation department for allegedly withholding information about drones in our skies.  

More Predators on Border 

For decades, the Border Patrol has annually boasted of the millions of pounds of illegal drugs it has seized and the number of immigrants detained. It’s a practice that border scholar Peter Andreas aptly calls "the numbers game."

Since the creation of the DHS, illegal immigrants and drugs aren’t just illegal, they are now classified as “dangerous people and goods.”

In fiscal year 2011 CBP reports that it seized “nearly five million pounds of narcotics.” But it fails to note that the domestic consumption of illegal drugs, especially marijuana, is steadily increasing despite these monumental numbers or that most of these “narcotics” enter the country from Mexico despite a massive buildup in border security and U.S. support for the Mexican drug war.

In its latest Predator announcement, Office of Air and Marine (OAM) tried playing the numbers game, but raised questions about the integrity of the numbers in the process:
Since the inception of the UAS program, CBP has flown more than 12,000 UAS hours in support of border security operations and CBP partners in disaster relief and emergency response, including various state governments and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The efforts of this program has led to the total seizure of approximately 46,600 pounds of illicit drugs and the detention of approximately 7,500 individuals suspected in engaging in illegal activity along the Southwest border.
One problem is the low numbers of seizures and apprehensions attributed to drone surveillance.

Another is that all the “narcotics” seizures CBP/OAM attributes to drone surveillance consist of bundles of Mexican-grown marijuana. That’s understandable since marijuana constitutes almost 100 percent of the drug seizures between the ports of entry along the southwestern border – more than 99 percent along the Arizona border. 

But is this small quantity of marijuana spotted by the Predators worth their $20 million price tag (including surveillance systems and support)? That’s not a question the congressional oversight committees have asked DHS. Nor has DHS asked itself questions about comparative costs and benefits of border control measures. 

Instead, it has poured steadily increasing budgets for border security into all three of its defined instruments of border control, what it calls the “three pillars of border security,” namely personnel or “boots on the ground,” tactical infrastructure (border fence and other physical barriers) and technology including the “virtual fence” of ground-based electronic surveillance and aerial surveillance. 
In CBP-think, all three pillars are equally important and all components of these border-security pillars are equally fundamental to protecting homeland security. 

Unimpressive Numbers

Since 2005 the Border Patrol has seized 13.5 million pounds of cannabis. This does not include the border marijuana seizures by CBP agents working at the POEs or by other federal and local law enforcement officials. 

Yet OAM, which first deployed in 2005, reports that drone surveillance has led to the seizure of a mere 46,600 pounds of marijuana. 

Drones, then, played a role in seizing less than one percent of the Border Patrol’s total marijuana in the past six years – to be exact only 0.003 percent.

On the “dangerous people” front, CBP reports that in the six years of the UAV program, drones have contributed to the apprehension of 7,500 suspected criminals detained. That’s small potatoes when compared to CBP’s overall number of detentions since 2005 – 5.7 million immigrants, including the 327,000 detained in 2011. 

Expressed as a percentage, amounts to only 0.001 percent.

Just as DHS eschews cost-benefit analysis, it also doesn’t apply risk analysis. All illegal border crossers and all contraband fall into the broad post-9/11 mission of protecting the homeland against “dangerous people and goods.” If all are dangerous, then DHS argues that all are targets, and the UAV numbers, while small, still demonstrate that these agencies are on target and on mission.  

Typically, CBP frames its UAVs as a fundamental instrument in combatting terrorism, even though no terrorists have ever been spotted or captured. 

CBP says that the Predators play a “lead role in CBP's critical anti-terrorism mission.”

Two Predators also patrol the northern border, and Candice Miller, the Republican from Michigan who chairs the House Subcommittee on Border and Marine Security, complains that CBP is slighting northern border security. 

The northern border Predators, however, haven’t led to a single interception of an illegal border crosser in the past two years. 

Dubious Numbers

Yet another problem with OAM is that its declared numbers are carelessly formulated by the agency. What is more, it’s unclear whether the number of apprehensions and seizures CBP/OAM does disseminate are entirely attributable to UAV surveillance. CBP and OAM officials have been ambiguous about this. Most agency media releases say that Predator surveillance “has led” to the reported drug seizures and immigrant apprehensions. 

Yet other media releases and CBP statements to congressional oversight committees fudge the role of the drones, saying only that drones “contributed to” or were “involved” in the actions that led to the seizures and arrests.

Second, CBP is careless in providing its numbers of arrests, seizures, and flight hours, raising questions about the veracity of the numbers.

The Dec.  27 media release refers to the seizures and arrests during so many drone flight hours – 12,000 hours of drone flight-time since 2005.

But CBP/OAM has over the past year given the media, Congress, and this writer the same arrest and seizure numbers (46,600 pounds of narcotics and 7,500 apprehensions) for varying numbers of reported hours flight-time – for 10,000, 11,500, and mostly recently 12,000 hours of drone air time. 

CBP/OAM’s numbers game also includes variations of the numbers of arrests and seizures for the same number of flight hours. Celebrating reaching 10,000 hours of drone air time in June 2011, CBP/OAM released a press statement asserting that 10,000 hours of “UAS Predator operations have resulted in the apprehension of 4,865 undocumented aliens and 238 smugglers; the seizure of 33,773 pounds of contraband.” 

Setting aside questions about why CBP/OAM can’t get its current numbers straight, the integrity and value of the drone program are also called into doubt by the unimpressive rate in the increased number of drug seizures and immigrant apprehensions reported by the agencies since 2006. 

As more Predators are added to the CBP/OAM fleet, the rate of arrests and seizures has dropped dramatically.

Global Hawk used for Mexico surveillance.

Crash and Burn

CBP deployed its first Predator drone in October 2005. Manufactured by General Atomics in the San Diego area, the Predator drone also came with a General Atomics technical team and pilot to operate the drone.

If evaluated against the total numbers attributed to the border Predators since 2005, the quantity of marijuana seized and the number of immigrants apprehended during the first six months of border drone surveillance are outstanding.

When announcing that it was purchasing its second Predator, CBP said that “during its operational period” its first Predator flew 959 hours andsupported 2,309 arrests, contributed to the seizure of four vehicles, and the capture of 8,267 pounds of illegal drugs

That operational period was from October 2005 to April 2006, when the Predator crashed in the Arizona desert near Nogales. 

Crash investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board found that the contract pilot shut off the drone’s engine when he thought he was redirecting the drone’s camera. As Major General Michael Kostelnik, who directs OAM, explained to the Border and Marine Subcommittee of the House Homeland Security Committee, “There was a momentary loss link that switched to the second control” -- and the Predator fell out of the sky.

The safety board issued CBP 17 safety recommendations to address deficiencies in OAM’s drone program. 

CBP/OAM has not, however, estimated the cost of this strategy. Nor have the agencies reported on the cost of the program thus far. A review of DHS purchasing reveals that the department spent $242 million in drone contracts with General Atomics. 

The crash didn’t deter CBP/OAM, which has steadily increased the homeland security drone fleet – which now includes seven Predators and two more expensive maritime variants called Guardians, also manufactured by General Atomics. By 2016 CBP hopes to deploy a fleet of 24 Predators and Reapers protecting the homeland. 

recent report by the Government Accounting Office on CBP’s high-tech border-security programs noted that the UAVs have “significant infrastructure costs with the highest cost risk.” Yet DHS continues to burn through its ever-expanding border security budget without apparent concern for cost-effectiveness or aptness in pursuing the DHS counterterrorism mission. 

Declining Numbers as Predators Increase

Border state politicians like governors Jan Brewer and Rick Perry together with an array of congressional Democrats and Republicans – notably the leadership of the homeland security oversight committees (including Michael McCaul, Henry Cuellar, and Candice Miller) insist that the increased deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles is fundamental to securing the border.

But as Predator drones have increased, the number of marijuana seizures and arrests of illegal border crossers attributed to drone surveillance has dropped precipitously.

During the six months of operation of the ill-fated first border Predator (which crashed in the Arizona desert in April 2006), the drone accounted for nearly a third of the total 2005-2011 drone-related apprehensions and nearly one-fifth of total drug seizures.  

At congressional hearings since 2005, OAM officials routinely report on the drone program with anecdotes and tributes to the wondrous technological capacities of the UAVs. Facts and figures, costs and benefits, and impact evaluations compared to other border security programs are, however, not routinely reported. 

At the July 15, 2010 hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee, then chairman Democrat Bennie Thompson insisted that OAM provide the committee with specific data. 
CBP complied and later submitted that since the inception of the program in October 2005 through July 2010, OAM had flown drones 6,979 hours over the southwestern border, with 7,173 illegal immigrants apprehended and 39,049 pounds of narcotics (all marijuana, according to the July 2010 CBP report) seized. 

In the four years since the crash of the first Predator, the border drone fleet had increased to five UAVs. Total UAV flight-time increased seven-fold the hours reported during the October 2005-April 2006 period, yet total drone-related apprehensions were only up three-fold while total drug seizures were up four-fold.

As the number of CBP/OAM drones rise, the productivity – measured by the traditional performance measures of immigrants detained and drugs seized – of the UAV program has dropped precipitously. 
The most recent CBP numbers, cited in the agency’s Dec. 27 media release, raise new questions about the cost-benefit of the drone program.  

Flight time rose to approximately 12,000 hours. Yet the roughly 5,000 recent hours (since July 2010) of drone surveillance contributed, according to CBP’s own reporting, to only 325 new apprehensions and 7,000 pounds of marijuana. 

To give some perspective on the drug haul attributed to UAV surveillance, in Arizona alone CBP seizes on average 3,500 pounds of marijuana every day – making a marijuana seizure every 1.7 hours. In the past couple of years the Border Patrol has seized approximately 2.5 million pounds of marijuana along the southwestern border.

CBP/OAM hails its “eyes in the sky” drone program has being “cost effective” and a “force multiplier.” 
Setting aside the up-front costs of the $20 million drones and the additional maintenance expenses and contractor services fees, and counting only the hourly operational costs, CPB/OAM has spent $17.5 million keeping its drones flying about 5,000 hours over the past year and a half.

In an October media release announcing the acquisition of another Predator for border-security duty in Texas, CBP declared that it “has continued to leverage the Predator B to unprecedented success.”

CBP routinely describes its various border security operations as “unprecedented” success stories. Yet the never agency never cites the precedents involved or even attempts to explain how these precedents in border control have been surpassed by its new initiatives and spending.

If evaluated, as none of the DHS agencies do, in terms of costs and benefits, then the CBP UAV program spent (only in flight costs) $54,846 for every illegal immigrant identified (and later apprehended by Border Patrol teams) on the drone cameras and $2,500 for every pound of marijuana. 

That’s without factoring in the estimated $20 million that DHS spends for its Predators.

CBP Explains the Numbers Game

CBP has answers to the apparent inconsistencies and errors of its statistics for drone-related drug seizures and immigrant apprehensions.

In response to a request to clarify the confusing and ostensibly errant numbers, CBP warned “it would be unfair to categorize UAS [unmanned aerials systems] by only using drug interdiction or border crossing metrics.”

Yes, ideally CBP would measure progress in securing the homeland by achievements by other measures, such as its role in countering terrorism and keeping the homeland secure – whatever that means. 

The border agency further explains that:
CBP deploys and operates the UAS only after careful examination where the UAS can be most responsibly aid in countering threats of our Nation's security. As threats change, CBP adjusts its enforcement posture accordingly and may consider moving the location of assets.
Then, the agency trots out the old force-multiplier assertion: 
The UAS can stay in the air for up to 20 hours at a time-something no other aircraft in the federal inventory can do. In this manner it is a force multiplier, providing aerial surveillance support for border agents by investigating sensor activity in remote areas to distinguish between real or perceived threats, allowing the boots on the ground force to best allocate their resources and efforts. 
That’s true. The Predators are called out when ground sensors signal movement. But as OAM’s Major General Michael Kostelnik explained at the July 15, 2010 Border and Marine Security subcommittee hearing:
At a standard 15 sensor activations, 12 of them might just be the wind. Two might be animals. One might be a group of migrants, and one might be a big group carrying drugs.
If there is a plausible explanation as to why there has been no increase in the number of drug seizures and immigrant apprehensions despite a jump from 10,000 to 12,000 hours of drone flights, it may be, as CBP wrote in response to the request to clarify its numbers, that:  
UAS is not exclusive to the border security mission. CBP OAM leverages the Predator-B and Guardian UAS as a force multiplier during National Special Security Events and emergency and disaster response efforts, including those of the U.S. Secret Service, Federal Emergency Management Agency, USCG, and other Department of Homeland Security partners.
In other words, the border Predators haven’t been on the border but have been deployed elsewhere on homeland security missions. 

Which, would mean, that despite the increased number of Predators and Guardians assigned for border security duty, the drones aren’t patrolling the border and coasts – a scenario, if true, would likely upset all the border security hawks who insist that these drones are needed to secure the border. 

It’s more likely, however, that CBP/OAM has from beginning been cooking the books and manipulating -- and that no one has called them on the inconsistencies. 

Asked in the same query to show how CBP/OAM disaggregated the drone-related numbers from overall seizure and apprehension data and for the documentation to support its UAV flight-time declarations, CBP/OAM had no response.

The Larger Threat Picture

Asked at Border and Marine Security subcommittee hearing if the Predators were worth the expense, Major General (Ret.) Kostelnik redirected the question away from actual achievements to the larger threat picture of protecting the homeland against unknown future threats. Kostelnik told the congressional oversight committee: 
I think the UAVs in their current deployment are very helpful in terms of the missions we apply it for. I believe we are building a force for a threat and an experience we really haven't seen yet. It is something that is in the future.
Major General Kostelnik summarized his support for DHS strategy to deploy two dozen drones, telling the oversight committee: “So not only are they ongoing force multipliers for the agents and troops on the ground, but they are unique capabilities in unique circumstances.”

Members of the DHS oversight committees also cite national security threats as the rationale for their drone boosterism, and like the major general are equally vague about the specific character of the threats that would justify the billions of dollars needed to continue the CBP/OAM drone strategy. 

Henry Cuellar, former chairman and currently ranking member of the Border Security and Marine Subcommittee, has become one of the most prominent boosters of DHS drone acquisition. The Democrat from South Texas and co-chair of the House Unarmed Systems Caucus, explained his enthusiasm for the Predators on the border in his opening statement to the July 15, 2010 subcommittee hearing:
UAVs are one more tool for us to stay steps ahead and leaps  above the threats that we face, and they can help deter and  prevent illegal activity and threats to terrorism against the United States. In the event of a National crisis, they will provide critical eyes in the sky for what we can't see or do from the ground.
DHS does not measure the progress and achievements of the program by the number of terrorists seized, drug lords and lieutenants captured, or “transnational criminal organizations” broken by its border security operations. 

Instead, border security programs  -- whether traditional patrolling, the border fence, the “virtual wall” of SBInet, traditional air surveillance, or unmanned aerial surveillance -- continue to be measured by traditional border-control benchmarks: how many immigrants are captured and how many pounds of illegal drugs are seized. 

It is a costly numbers game that has done little or nothing to resolve the country’s immigration policy challenges or the failures of its drug control policy. 

Tom Barry is the author of Border Wars (MIT Press, 2011). He blogs at

Join Border Wars Policy Group to follow/discuss border security, immigrant imprisonment, and drug policy issues at: