Monday, January 2, 2012

Playing the Numbers Game with Border Drones

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, OAM tried playing the numbers game, but raised questions about the integrity of the numbers in the process. According to OAM:
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 [author highlighting].
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% of the drug seizures between the ports of entry along the southwestern border – more than 99% 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 that 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 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%.
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%.
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 Cong. 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. 

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