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Homeland Security Report says Border Drones are Costly, Ineffective

An example of a CBP drone (Gerald L. Nino via Wikimedia Commons)

The Department of Homeland Security's Inspector General is out with harsh words for the agency's eight-year-old border drone program, saying unmanned air patrols of the border are "dubious achievers."

A report released Tuesday Inspector General John Roth says the department's own sub-agency - U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) - hasn't proven the drone program is worth paying for, and that CBP should scrap any plans to expand it.

"CBP has invested significant funds in a program that has not achieved the expected results," the report reads, "and it cannot demonstrate how much the program has improved border security."

Roth spoke at length about his findings on C-SPAN's "Washington Journal" this week.

"We're not saying it's garbage," he said, explaining that a main problem his office found was that CBP's goals for the program - and its method of measuring success - were never that clear to begin with.

"Ultimately, what we try to do is prod CBP into what it is they're trying to do, and put forth measures that can actually see whether or not they're successful," Roth said. "Thus far, they haven't done it, and that was really the focus of our audit."

CBP defends the program and strongly disagrees with the report's findings. The agency shot back with an eight page, detailed rebuttal, in which it says the inspector general's office used flawed methods to calculate the costs of operating the drones.

The report calls on on CBP to "abandon plans to spend $443 million more on additional aircraft and put those funds to better use."

Among other recommendations, the report asks CBP to perform an independent study before buying any new aircraft. The study would determine whether new drones are "needed and justified," and whether money earmarked for the program should be used for alternatives like "manned aircraft and ground assets."

But CBP maintains those recommendations are based on a "misunderstanding" of its plans.

The agency currently has nine unmanned aircraft on hand, and insists it's only interested in buying one more to replace another that was lost off the coast of California a year ago.

"There is no intent at this time to acquire additional [unmanned aircraft] beyond the one replacement aircraft," CBP said in its rebuttal, saying it doesn't even have a contact or funding in place to make such an expansion.

The back-and-forth only scratches the surface of the many detailed disagreements between CBP and its parent agency over the report's findings and the program in general.

Roth said plainly the program isn't performing as intended, and that there's no need to pump more money into it.

"We see no evidence that the drones contribute to a more secure border," Roth said, "and there is no reason to invest additional taxpayer funds at this time.

CBP, meanwhile, points to a laundry list of statistics to back up its claim that the drone program has indeed helped agencies gather national security intelligence, and has disrupted drug trafficking and organized crime.

There is at least one sign the agency and its auditor are willing to meet in the middle.

CBP says it agrees it principal that it could be more transparent about the program, and about how it tracks expenses. Roth called that "encouraging," but the agency still maintains it's meeting all the reporting standards its required to.

In its rebuttal, CBP "respectfully requests closure of this recommendation."

The report alone likely won't mean the drones will stop flying. Roth's recommendations don't explicitly say the idea of drones patrolling the border is a bad one, but just that it hasn't been done efficiently.

"If Southwest Airlines buys an airplane, you can be sure it's gonna be used as much as it possibly can, to get the best return on the investment," Roth said.

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.