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Drones Over the Homeland

April 23, 2013 | Report


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By Tom Barry                                                                                                                                                                           April 2013


Drones are proliferating at home and abroad. A new high-tech realm is emerging, where remotely controlled and autonomous unmanned systems do our bidding. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) – commonly known as drones – are already working for us in many ways.

This new CIP International Policy Report reveals how the military-industrial complex and the emergence of the homeland security apparatus have put border drones at the forefront of the intensifying public debate about the proper role of drones domestically. 

Drones Over the Homeland focuses on the deployment of drones by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which is developing a drone fleet that it projects will be capable of quickly responding to homeland security threats, national security threats and national emergencies across the entire nation.  In addition, DHS says that its drone fleet is available to assist local law-enforcement agencies.

Due to a surge in U.S. military contracting since 2001, the United States is the world leader in drone production and deployment. Other nations, especially China, are also rapidly gaining a larger market share of the international drone market. The United States, however, will remain the dominant driver in drone manufacturing and deployment for at least another decade. 

The central U.S. role in drone proliferation is the direct result of the Pentagon’s rapidly increasing expenditures for UAVs. Also fueling drone proliferation is UAV procurement by the Department of Homeland Security, by other federal agencies such as NASA, and by local police, as well as by individuals and corporations. Drones are also proliferating among state-level Air National Guard units.

Despite its lead role in the proliferation of drones, the U.S. government has failed to take the lead in establishing appropriate regulatory frameworks and oversight processes. Without this necessary regulatory infrastructure – at both the national and international levels – drone proliferation threatens to undermine constitutional guarantees, civil liberties and international law. 

This policy report begins with a brief overview of the development and deployment of UAVs, including a summary of the DHS drone program.  The second section details and critically examines the role of Congress and industry in promoting drone proliferation. In the third part, we explore the expanding scope of the DHS drone program, extending to public safety and national security. The report’s fourth section focuses on the stated objectives of the homeland security drone program. It debunks the dubious assertions and myths that DHS wields in presentations to the public and Congress to justify this poorly conceived, grossly ineffective and entirely nonstrategic border program. The report’s final section summarizes our conclusions, and then sets forward our recommendations.


UAVs are ideal instruments for what the military calls ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) missions. Yet, with no need for an onboard crew and with the capacity to hover unseen at high altitudes for long periods, drones also have many nonmilitary uses. Whether deployed in the air, on the ground or in the water, unmanned drones are ideally suited for a broad range of scientific, business, public-safety and even humanitarian tasks. That is due to what are known as the “three Ds” capabilities – Dull (they can work long hours, conducting repetitive tasks), Dirty (drones are impervious to toxicity) and Dangerous (no lives lost if a drone is destroyed).

Indicative of the many possibilities for UAV use, some human rights advocates are now suggesting drones can be used to defend human rights, noting their ISR capabilities could be used to monitor human rights violations by repressive regimes and non-state actors in such countries as Syria.1

Manufacturers, led by the largest military contractors, are rapidly producing drones for a boom market, whose customers include governments (with the U.S. commanding dominant market share), law enforcement agencies, corporations, individual consumers and rogue forces. 

Drones are proliferating so rapidly that a consensus about their formal name has not yet formed.  The most common designation is Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), although Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) is also frequently used. Other less common terms include Unmanned Systems (US) and Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA). 

The more inclusive “Unmanned Systems” term covers ground and marine drones , while highlighting the elaborate control and communications systems used to launch, operate and recover drones. However, because most drones require staffed command-and-control centers, Remotely Piloted Aircraft may be the best descriptive term.


Although the U.S. military and intelligence sectors had been promoting drone development since the early 1960s,2  it was the Israeli Air Force in the late 1970s that led the way in drone technology and manufacture.  However, after the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the U.S. intelligence apparatus and the U.S. Air Force became the major drivers in drone development and proliferation.3

Because the intelligence budget is classified, there are no hard figures publicly available that quantify the intelligence community’s contributions to drone development in the United States. It has been credibly estimated that prior to 2000, such contributions made up about 40% of total drone research and development (R&D) expenditures, with the U.S. Air Force being the other major source of development funds for drone research by U.S. military contractors.4

In the early 1990s, as part of a classified weapons project, the U.S. Air Force and the CIA underwrote and guided the development and production of what became the Predator UAV, the first war-fighting drones that were initially deployed in ISR missions during the Balkan wars in 1995. 

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-SI), an affiliate of privately held, San Diego-based company General Atomics, produced the first Predator UAVs – now known as Predator A – with research and development funding from Pentagon, the Air Force and a highly secret intelligence organization called the National Reconnaissance Organization.5

The 1995 deployment of the unarmed Predator A by the CIA and Air Force sparked new interest within the U.S. military and intelligence apparatus, resulting in at least $600 million in new R&D contracting for drones with General Atomics. According to a U.S. Air Force study, “The CIA’s UAV program that existed in the early 1990’s and that still exists today gave Predator and GA-ASI an important opportunity that laid the foundation for Predator’s success.” The study goes on to document what is known of the collaboration between the intelligence community and General Atomics.6

General Atomics is a privately held firm, owned by brothers Neal and Linden Blue. The Blue brothers bought the firm (which was originally a start-up division of General Dynamics) in 1986 for $50 million and the next year hired Ret. Rear Admiral Thomas J. Cassidy to run GA-SI. The Blue brothers are well connected nationally and internationally with arch-conservative, anti-communist networks. These links stem in part from their past associations with right-wing leaders; one such example being the 100,000-acre banana and cocoa farm Neal Blue co-owned with the Somoza family in Nicaragua, another being Linden Blue’s 1961 imprisonment in Cuba shortly before the Bay of Pigs for flying into Cuban airspace, and especially their record of providing substantial campaign support for congressional hawks.7

In 1997, the U.S. Air Force’s high-tech development and procurement divisions took the first steps toward weaponizing the Predator.  This push led to the Air Force’s “Big Safari” rapid high-tech acquisitions program, which proved instrumental in having an armed Predator ready for deployment in 2000. The newly weaponized MQ Predator-B was in action from the first day of the invasion of Afghanistan on October 21, 2001, when a Hellfire missile was fired from a remote operator sitting in an improvised command and control center situated in the parking lot of the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.8

The post-9/11 launch of the “global war on terrorism” opened the floodgates for drone R&D funding and procurement by the CIA and all branches of the U.S. military, led by the Air Force.  Starting in Afghanistan, and later in Iraq, the Predator transitioned from an unmanned surveillance aircraft to what General Atomics proudly called a “Hunter-Killer.”

Since 2004, the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command, a covert unit of the U.S. military, have routinely made clandestine strikes in Pakistan and more recently in Yemen and Somalia. These clandestine strikes increased during the first Obama Administration and continued into the second amid growing criticism that drone strikes were unconstitutional and counterproductive.9

The rise of the Predators along with later drone models produced by General Atomics – the Reaper, Guardian and Avenger drones – can be attributed to aggressive marketing, influence-peddling and lobbying initiatives by General Atomics and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-SI). The selling of the Predator could also count on the close personal ties forged over decades in the military-industrial complex, which resulted in key R&D grants from the military and intelligence sectors. 

Another important factor in the Predator’s increasing popularity has been General Atomics’ willingness to adapt models to meet varying demands from DOD, DHS and the intelligence community for different armed and unarmed variants. Also working in General Atomics favor is its ongoing commitment to curry favor in Congress with substantial campaign contributions and special favors.

Speaking at the Citadel on December 11, 2001, President George W. Bush underscored the Predators’ central role in U.S. global counterterrorism missions: “Before the war, the Predator had skeptics because it did not fit the old ways. Now it is clear the military does not have enough unmanned vehicles.”10

At the time, there was widespread public, media and congressional enthusiasm for UAVs where suspected terrorists were purportedly killed with surgical precision while UAV pilots sat in front of video screens out of harm’s way drinking coffee. Little was known then about the high-accident rates for the UAVs or the shocking collateral damage from their targeted strikes. Nor was it well known that the Predators were being piloted from command and control centers at the CIA and at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. 


In the late-1990s, about the same time that the U.S. Border Patrol started contracting for ground-based electronic surveillance, the agency also began planning to integrate drone surveillance into ground-based electronic surveillance systems. It is also when it began the practice of entering into sole-source contracts with high-tech firms.11  The Border Patrol’s grand high-tech plan was to integrate drone ISR operations with its planned Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System (ISIS).12  The plan, albeit never detailed in the project proposal, was to integrate geospatial images from yet-to-be acquired Border Patrol UAVs into an elaborate command, control and communications systems managed by the Border Patrol – an agency not known for its high-level technical or management skills.13

Soon after the CIA and the U.S. Air Force began flooding General Atomics with procurement contracts for armed Predators in 2001, disarmed Predator UAVs were summoned for border security duty.

In 2003, the Border Patrol – with funding not from the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) budget but rather from the Homeland Security’s newly created Science and Technology Directorate – began testing small, relatively inexpensive UAVs for border surveillance. 

In 2005, CBP took full control over the DHS drone program, with the launch of its own Predator drone program under the supervision of the newly created Office of Air and Marine (OAM). OAM was a CBP division that united all the aerial and marine assets of the Office of the Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). According to the CBP, “The UAV program focuses operations on the CBP priority mission of anti-terrorism by helping to identify and intercept potential terrorists and illegal cross-border activity.”  Tens of billions of dollars began to flow into the Department of Homeland Security for border security – the term that superseded border control in the aftermath of 9/11 – and the DHS drone program was propelled forward.

To direct OAM, DHS appointed Michael C. Kostelnik, a retired Air Force major general. During his tenure in the Air Force, Kostelnik supervised weapons acquisitions and was one of the leading players in encouraging General Atomics to quickly equip the Predator with bombs or missiles.14  The more expensive, armed Predator drones and their variants became the preferred border drone as a result of widespread enthusiasm for the surge in Predator operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and the close collaborative relationship that developed between General Atomics Aeronautical Systems and CBP. 

CBP began using its first Predator for operations in October 2005, but the drone crashed in April 2006 in the Arizona desert near Nogales due an error made by General Atomics’ contracted pilot. Crash investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board found the pilot had shut off the drone’s engine when he thought he was redirecting the drone’s camera. As Kostelnik 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.15

The Fleet

By early 2013, CBP had a fleet of seven Predator drones and three Guardians drones, all stationed at military bases. Two Guardians – Predators modified for marine surveillance – are based at the Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi, Texas, while another patrols the Caribbean as part of a drug war mission from its base at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Four of the seven Predators are stationed at Libby Army Airfield, part of Fort Huachuca near the Mexican border in southeastern Arizona, while two have homes at the Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota. The tenth Predator drone will also be based at Cape Canaveral. 

According to the CBP Strategic Air and Marine Plan of 2010, OAM intends to deploy a fleet of 24 Guardians and Predators. In 2008, as part of its acquisition strategy, CBP planned to have the 24-drone fleet ready by 2016, boasting that OAM would then be capable of deploying drones anywhere in national airspace in three hours or less.16  In late 2012, CBP signed a major new five-drone contract with General Atomics. The $443.1 million five-year contract includes $237.7 million for the prospective purchase of up to 14 additional Predators and Predator variations, and $205.4 million for operational costs and maintenance by General Atomics crews.17

This new contract was signed, despite increasing budget restrictions, a series of critical reports by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), Government Accountability Office and the DHS Office of Inspector General, and continuing technical failures and poor results. 

Only One Source

CBP insists that General Atomics Aeronautical Systems is the only “responsible source” for its drone needs and that no other suppliers or servicers can satisfy agency requirements for these $18-20 million drones. According to CBP’s justification for sole-source contracting, U.S. national security would be put at risk if DHS switched drone contractors.  

In a November 1, 2012 statement titled “Justification for Other than Full and Open Competition,” DHS contends that “The Predator-B/Guardian UAS combination is unmatched by any other UAS available. To procure an alternative system…or support services…would detrimentally impact national security,” most notably due to “decreased interdictions of contraband (e.g., illegal narcotics, undocumented immigrants).”

Furthermore, CBP claimed, “The GA-ASI MQ-9 UAS provides the best value to OAM’s documented and approved operational requirements and programmatic constraints. With 38% of planned systems on-online, MQ-9 operations are mature, well-understood, and a critical component of DHS’s daily Homeland Security campaign.”

When asked by this author for information documenting specific data, comparative studies, cost-benefit evaluations, record of the achievements of the drone program, or threat assessment to support such conclusions, CBP simply responded: 

CBP deploys and operates the UAS only after careful examination where the UAS can 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.18


The Pentagon, military, intelligence agencies and military contractors are longtime proponents of UAVs for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions. Following President Bush’s declaration of a “global war on terrorism,” the White House became directly involved in expanding drone deployment in foreign wars – especially in directing drone strikes.

The most unabashed advocates of drone proliferation, however, are in Congress. They claim drones can solve many of America’s most pressing problems – from eliminating terrorists to keeping the homeland safe from unwanted immigrants. However, there has been little congressional oversight of drone deployments, both at home and abroad. Since the post-9/11 congressional interest in drone issues – budgets, role in national airspace, overseas sales, border deployment and UAVs by law enforcement agencies – drone boosterism in Congress has been devoid of any incipient oversight or governance role. Drones made an appearance in the Senate in the first foray to implement immigration reform, when on January 28, 2013 a bipartisan group of senators argued their proposal legislation would “increase the number of unmanned aerial vehicles and surveillance equipment….”19

Drone promotion by U.S. representatives and senators in Congress pops up in what at first may seem the unlikeliest of places. Annually, House members join with UAS manufacturers to fill the foyer and front rooms of the Rayburn House Office Building with displays of the latest drones – an industry show introduced in glowing speeches by highly influential House leaders, notably Buck McKeon, the Southern California Republican who chairs the House Armed Service Committee and co-chairs the Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus (CUSC).

Advances in communications, aviation and surveillance technology have all accelerated the coming of UAVs to the home front.  Yet drones are not solely about technological advances. Money flows and political influence also factor in. 

Congressional Caucus on Unmanned Systems

At the forefront of the money/politics nexus is the Congressional Caucus on Unmanned Systems (CCUS). Four years ago, the CCUS (then known as the House Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Caucus) was formed by a small group of congressional representatives – mainly Republicans and mostly hailing from districts with drone industries or bases. 

By late 2012, the House caucus had 60 members and had changed its name to encompass all unmanned systems – whether aerial, marine or ground-based.20  This bipartisan caucus, together with its allies in the drone industry, has been promoting UAV use at home and abroad through drone fairs on Capitol Hill, new legislation and drone-favored budgets.

CCUS aims to “educate members of Congress and the public on the strategic, tactical, and scientific value of unmanned systems; actively support further development and acquisition of more systems, and to more effectively engage the civilian aviation community on unmanned system use and safety.”21

In late 2012, the caucus comprised a collection of border hawks, immigration hardliners and leading congressional voices for the military contracting industry. The two caucus co-chairs, Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-California, and Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, are well positioned to accelerate drone proliferation. McKeon, whose southern California district includes major drone production facilities, notably General Atomics, is the caucus founder and chair of the House Armed Services Committee. Cuellar, who represents the Texas border district of Laredo, is the ranking member (and former chairman) of the House Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security. 

Other caucus members include Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.), who heads the House Immigration Reform Caucus; Candice Miller (R-Minn.), who heads the Homeland Security subcommittee that reviews the air and marine operations of DHS; Joe Wilson (R-SC); Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.); Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.); Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.); and Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.). Eight caucus members were also members of the powerful House Appropriations Committee in the 112th Congress.

The caucus and its leading members (along with drone proponents in the Senate) have played key roles in drone proliferation at home and abroad through channeling earmarks to Predator manufacturer General Atomics, prodding the Department of Homeland Security to establish a major drone program, adding amendments to authorization bills for the Federal Aviation Administration and Department of Defense to ensure the more rapid integration of UAVs into the national airspace, and increasing annual DOD and DHS budgets for drone R&D and procurements.  To accelerate drone acquisitions and deployment at home, Congress has an illustrative track record of legislative measures (see accompanying box).

Congressional support for the development and procurement of Predators dates back to 1996, and is reflected in the defense and intelligence authorization acts. An Air Force-sponsored study of the Predator’s rise charted the increases mandated by the House Armed Service and the House Intelligence committees over the Predator budget requests made by the Air Force in its budgets requests. Between 1996 and 2006 (ending date of study), “Congress has recommended an increase, over and above USAF requests, in the Predator budget for nearly 10 years in a row.  This has resulted in a sum total increase of over a half a billion dollars over the years.”22

Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems

CCUS cosponsors the annual drone fete with the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), an industry group that brings together the leading drone manufacturers and universities with UAV research projects. AUVSI represents the interests in the expansion of unmanned systems expressed by many of the estimated 100 U.S. companies and academic institutions involved in developing and deploying the some 300 of the currently existing UAV models.23

The drone association has a $7.5-million annual operating budget, including $2 million a year for conferences and trade shows to encourage government agencies and companies to use unmanned aircraft.24   

AUVSI also has its own congressional advocacy committee that is closely linked to the caucus. The keynote speaker at the drone association’s annual conference in early 2012 was Representative McKeon. The congressman was also the featured speaker at AUVSI’s AIR Day 2011, in recognition, says AUVSI’s president, that Congressman McKeon “has been one of the biggest supporters of the unmanned systems community.”  

The close relationship between the congressional drone caucus and AUVSI was reflected in a similar relationship between CBP/OAM and AUVSI. Tom Faller, the CBP official who directed the UAV program at OAM, joined the AUVSI 23-member board-of-directors in August 2011, a month before the association hosted a technology fair in the foyer of the Rayburn House Office Building.  OAM participated in the fair.  Faller resigned from the unpaid position on Nov. 23, 2011 after the Los Angeles Times queried DHS about Faller’s unpaid position in the industry association. Faller is currently subject of a DHS internal ethics-violation investigation.25

Contracts, contributions, earmarks and favors

Once a relatively insignificant part of the military-industrial complex, the UAV development and manufacturing sector is currently expanding faster than any other component of military contracting. Drone orders from various federal departments and agencies are rolling in to AUVSI corporate members, including such leading military contractors as General Atomics, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.26 (Unlike most major military contractors, General Atomics is not a corporation but a privately held firm, whose two major figures are Linden and Neal Blue, both of whom have high security clearances)

U.S. government drone purchases – not counting contracts for an array of related UAV services and “payloads” – rose from $588 million to $1.3 billion over the past five years.27  The FY2013 DOD budget includes $5.8 billion for UAVs, which does not include drone spending by the intelligence community, DHS or other federal entities.  The Pentagon says that its “high-priority” commitment to expenditures for drone defense and warfare has resulted in “strong funding for unmanned aerial vehicles that enhance intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities.”29

While the relationship between increasing drone contracts and the increasing campaign contributions received by drone caucus members can only be speculated, caucus members are favored recipients of contributions by AUVSI members. In the 2010 and 2012 election cycles, political action committees associated with companies that produce drones donated more than $2.4 million to members of the congressional drone caucus.30

The leading recipient was McKeon, with Representative Silvestre Reyes, the influential Democrat from El Paso (who lost his seat in the 2012 election), coming in a close second.31 General Atomics counted among McKeon’s top five contributors in the last election. (See Figure 1) Frank W. Pace, the director of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, contributed to two candidates – Buck McKeon and Jerry Lewis – during the 2012 electoral campaign. (See Figure 2)

Who were the top recipients of the General Atomics campaign contributions in the 2012 cycle? Four of the top five recipients were not surprising – Buck McKeon, Jerry Lewis, Duncan Hunter and Brian Bilbray – given their record of support for UAVs, and their position among the most influential drone caucus members. (See Figure 3)

The relationship that has been consolidating between General Atomics and the U.S. Air Force since the early 1990s has been mediated and facilitated in Congress by influential congressional representatives, led by southern Californian Republican Rep. Jerry Lewis, a member of the House Appropriations Defense Committee and vice-chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

Lewis, a favored recipient of General Atomics campaign contributions, used his appropriations influence to ensure that the Air Force gained full control of the UAV program by 1998. Lewis, a prominent member of the “Drone Caucus,” has received at least $10,000 every two years in campaign contributions from General Atomics’ political action committee – $80,000 since 1998, according to During the 2012 campaign cycle, General Atomics was the congressman’s top campaign donor.32

The top ranking recipient of General Atomics’ campaign contributions is not a CUSC member. Senator Diane Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) contributions from General Atomics easily placed her at the top of the list. Feinstein, who chairs the powerful Senate Intelligence Committee, was also favored in campaign contributions by Linden Blue, the president of General Atomics. (See Figure 4

Senator Feinstein has been a highly consistent supporter of the intelligence community and military budgets. Her failure to oppose the clandestine drone strikes ordered by the White House and CIA have sparked widespread criticism by those who argue the strikes are unconstitutional, illegal under international law and counterproductive as a counterterrorism tactic.33

In 2012, General Atomics was Feinstein’s third largest campaign contributor, while other leading contributors were the military contractors General Dynamics (from which General Atomics emerged), BAE Systems and Northrup Grumman.34  Feinstein’s connections to General Atomics extend beyond being top recipient of their campaign contributions. Rachel Miller, a former (2003-2007) legislative assistant for Feinstein, has served as a paid lobbyist for General Atomics, both working directly for the firm (in 2011) and as a General Atomics lobbyist employed by Capitol Solutions (2009 - present), one of the leading lobbying firms contracted by General Atomics.35

And did you know that Linden Blue plans to marry Retired Rear Adm. Ronne Froman? Few others knew about the engagement of this high-society San Diego couple until Senator Feinstein announced the planned marriage at a mid-November 2012 meeting of the downtown San Diego business community – news that quickly appeared in the Society pages of the San Diego Union-Tribune. There has been no explanation offered why Feinstein broke this high-society news, but the announcement certainly did point to the senator’s likely personal connections to Blue and Froman (who was hired by General Atomics as senior vice-president in December 2007 and has since left the firm).36

Campaign contributions and personal connections create goodwill and facilitate contracts. General Atomics also counts on the results produced by a steady stream of lobbying dollars – which have risen dramatically since 2003, and been averaging $2.5 million annually since 2005. In 2012, General Atomics spent $2,470,000 lobbying Congress.37

Congressional earmarks were critical to the rise of the Predator, both its earlier unarmed version as well as the later “Hunter-Killer.” The late senator Daniel K. Inouye, the Hawaii Democrat who chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee, told the New York Times that if the House ban on commercial earmarks that was introduced in 2010 had been in effect earlier, ‘’we would not have the Predator today.’’ Tens of millions of dollars in congressional earmarks in the 1990s went to General Atomics and other military contractors for the early development of what became the Predator program, reported the New York Times.38  Inouye was a source of a number of these multimillion earmarks for General Atomics, whose large campaign contributions to the influential Hawaii senator from 1998 to 2012 ($5000 in this last campaign) could be regarded as thank-you notes since Inouye faced insignificant political opposition. 

Besides campaign contributions, General Atomics routinely hands out favors to congressional representatives thought likely to support drone proliferation. A 2006 report by the Center for Public Integrity identified Jerry Lewis as one of two congressional members and more than five dozen congressional staffers who traveled overseas courtesy of General Atomics. The center’s report, The ‘Top Gun’ of Travel, observed this “little-known California defense contractor [has] far outspent its industry competitors on travel for more than five years — and in 2005 landed promises of billions of dollars in federal business.” Most of this business was in the form of drone development and procurement by the Pentagon and DHS.

Questioned about this pattern of corporate-sponsored trips, Thomas Cassidy, founder of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, said, “[It’s] useful and very helpful, in fact, when you go down and talk to the government officials to have congressional people go along and discuss the capabilities of [the plane] with them,” A follow-up investigation by the San Diego Union-Tribune reported, “Most of that was spent on overseas travel related to the unmanned Predator spy plane made by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, an affiliated company.”39

Looking desperately for oversight

In practice, there’s more boosterism than effective oversight in the House Homeland Security Committee and its Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, which oversees DHS’s rush to deploy drones to keep the homeland secure. The same holds true for most of the more than one hundred other congressional committees that purportedly oversee the DHS and its budget.40  Since DHS’s creation, Congress has routinely approved annual and supplementary budgets for border security that have been higher than those requested by the president and DHS.

CCUS member and chair of the House Border and Maritime Security subcommittee, Representative Candice Miller, R-Michigan, is effusive and unconditional in her support of drones. Miller described her personal conviction that drones are the answer to border insecurity at the July 15, 2010 subcommittee hearing on UAVs.41

“You know, my husband was a fighter pilot in Vietnam theater, so—from another generation, but I told him, I said, ‘Dear, the glory days of the fighter jocks are over.’”

“The UAVs, the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are coming,” continued Miller,  “and now you see our military siting in a cubicle sometimes in Nevada, drinking a Starbucks, running these things in theater and being incredibly, incredibly successful.”

The uncritical drone boosterism in Congress was underscored in a Washington Post article on the use of drones for border security.  In his trips to testify on Capitol Hill, Kostelnik said he had never been challenged in Congress about the appropriate use of homeland security drones. “Instead, the question is: ‘Why can’t we have more of them in my district?’” remarked the OAM chief.42

Since 2004, the DHS’s UAV program has drawn mounting concern and criticism from the government’s own oversight and research agencies, including the Congressional Research Service, the Government Accountability Office and the DHS’s own Office of Inspector General.43 These government entities have repeatedly raised questions about the cost-efficiency, strategic focus and performance of the homeland security drones. Yet, rather than subjecting DHS officials to sharp questioning, the congressional committees overseeing homeland security and border security operations have, for the most part, readily and often enthusiastically accepted the validity of undocumented assertions by testifying CBP officials. The House Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security has been especially notorious for its lack of critical oversight. 

As part of the budgetary and oversight process, the House and Senate committees that oversee DHS have not insisted that CBP undertake cost-benefit evaluations, institute performance measures, implement comparative evaluations of its high-tech border security initiatives, or document how its UAV program responds to realistic threat assessments.  Instead of providing proper oversight and ensuring that CBP/OAM’s drone program is accountable and transparent, congressional members from both parties seem more intent on boosting drone purchases and drone deployment.

As CBP was about to begin its first drone deployments in 2005 as part of the Operation Safeguard pilot project, the Congressional Research Service observed: “Congress will likely conduct oversight of Operation Safeguard before considering wider implementation of this technology.” Unfortunately, Congress never reviewed the results of Operation Safeguard pilot project, and CBP declined requests by this writer to release the report of this UAV pilot project.44

Congress has been delinquent in its oversight duties. In addition to the governmental research and monitoring institutions, it has been mainly the nongovernmental sector – including the American Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Center for Constitutional Rights, and the Center for International Policy – that has alerted the public about the lack of transparency and accountability in the DHS drone program and the absence of responsible governance over the domestic and international proliferation of UAVs. 

In September 2012, the Senate formed its own bipartisan drone caucus, the Senate Unmanned Aerial Systems Caucus, co-chaired by Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). “This caucus will help develop and direct responsible policy to best serve the interests of U.S. national defense and emergency response, and work to address any concerns from senators, staff and their constituents,” said Inhofe.45

It is still too early to ascertain if the Senate’s drone caucus will follow its counterpart in the House in almost exclusively focusing on promoting drone proliferation at home and abroad. It is expected, however, that caucus members will experience increased flows of campaign contributions from the UAS industry. While Senator Manchin just won his first full-term in the 2012 election, Senator Inhofe has been favored by campaign contributions from military contractors, including General Atomics ($14,000 in 2012), since he took office in 2007. His top campaign contributor was Koch Industries.

For its part, AUVSI, the drone industry association, gushed in its quickly offered commendation. “I would like to commend Senators Inhofe and Manchin for their leadership and commitment in establishing the caucus, which will enable AUVSI to work with the Senate and stakeholders on the important issues that face the unmanned systems community as the expanded use of the technology transitions to the civil and commercial markets,” said AUVSI President and CEO Michael Toscano. “It is our hope to establish the same open dialogue with the Senate caucus as we have for the past three years with the House Unmanned Systems Caucus,” the AUVSI executive added.46

There is rising citizen concern about drones and privacy and civil rights violations. The prospective opening of national airspace to UAVs has sparked a surge of concern among many communities and states – eleven of which are considering legislation in 2013 that would restrict how police and other agencies would deploy drones. But paralleling new concern about the threats posed by drone proliferation is local and state interest in attracting new UAV testing facilities and airbases for the FAA and other federal entities.

FAA and industry projections about the number of UAVs (15,000 by 2020, 30,000 by 2030) that may be using national airspace – the same space used by all commercial and private aircraft – have sparked a surge of new congressional activism, with several new bills introduced by non-drone caucus members in the new Congress that respond to the new fears about drone proliferation. Yet there is no one committee in the House or the Senate that has assumed the responsibility for UAV oversight to lead the way toward creating a foundation of laws and regulations establishing a political framework for UAV use going forward. 

At this point, there is no federal agency or congressional committee that is providing oversight over drone proliferation – whether in regard to U.S. drone exports, the expanding drone program of DHS, drone-related privacy concerns, or UAV use by private or public firms and agencies. Gerald Dillingham, top official of the Government Accountability Office, testified in Congress about this oversight conundrum. When asked which part of the federal government was responsible for regulating drone proliferation in the interest of public safety and civil rights, the GAO director said, “At best, we can say it’s unknown at this point.”47


Homeland security drones are expanding their range beyond the border, crossing over to local law enforcement agencies, other federal civilian operations, and into national security missions. 


The rapid advance of drone technology has sparked interest by police and sheriff offices in acquiring drones. The federal government has closely nurtured this new eagerness.

Through grants, training programs and “centers of excellence,” the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security have been collaborating with the drone industry and local law enforcement agencies to introduce unmanned aerial vehicles to the homeland.

One example is DHS’s Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI), a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) program established to assist communities with counterterrorism projects that provides grants to enable police and sheriffs departments to launch their own drone programs.

In 2011, a DHS UASI grant of $258,000 enabled the Montgomery County Sheriffs Office in Texas to purchase a ShadowHawk drone from Vanguard Defense Industries. DHS UASI grants also allowed the city of Arlington, Texas to buy two small drones.48 Miami also counted on DHS funding to purchase its UAV.

According to DHS, UASI “provides funding to address the unique planning, organization, equipment, training, and exercise needs of high-threat, high-density urban areas, and assists them in building an enhanced and sustainable capacity to prevent, protect against, respond to, and recover from acts of terrorism.”49 However, in the UASI project proposals there is little or no mention of terrorism or counterterrorism. Instead, local police forces want drones to bolster their surveillance capabilities and as an adjunct to their SWAT teams and narc squads. 

DHS is not the only federal department promoting drone deployment in the homeland. Over the past four decades, the Department of Justice’s criminal-justice assistance grants have played a central role in shaping the priorities and operations of state and local law enforcement.50

Through its National Institute of Justice, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has been working closely with industry and local law enforcement to “develop and evaluate low-cost unmanned aircraft systems.”51 In 2011, National Institute of Justice grants went to such large military contractors and drone manufacturers as Lockheed Martin, ManTech and L-3 Systems to operate DOJ-sponsored “centers of excellence” devoted to the use of technology by local law enforcement for surveillance, communications, biometrics and sensors.53

In an October 4, 2012 presentation to the National Defense Industrial Association, OAM chief Kostelnik explained that the CBP drones were not limited to border control duties. The OAM was, he said, the “leading edge of deployment of UAS in the national airspace.” This deployment wasn’t limited to what are commonly understood homeland security missions but extended to “rapid contingency supports” for “Federal/State/Local missions.”  According to CBP:

OAM provides investigative air and marine support to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as well as other federal, state, local, and international law enforcement agencies.53

Incidents involving CBP drones in local law enforcement operations have surfaced in media reports, but CBP has thus far not released a record of its support for local and state police, despite repeated requests by media and research organizations.

DHS and CBP/OAM in particular have failed to define the legal and constitutional limits of its drone operations. Rather than following strict guidelines about the scope of its mission and the range of homeland security drones, Kostelnik argued before the association of military contractors that “CBP operations [are] shaping the UAS policy debate” in the United States. According to Kostelnik, the CBP’s drones are “on the leading edge in homeland security.” This cutting edge role of the CBP/OAM drones not only extends to local and state operations, including support for local law enforcement, but also to national security.  “[The] CBP UAS deployment vision strengthens the National Security Response Capability.” 

Border Security to National Security

Most of the concern about the domestic deployment of drones by DHS has focused on the crossover to law-enforcement missions that threaten privacy and civil rights – and without more regulations in place will accelerate the transition to what critics call a “surveillance society.” Also worth public attention and congressional review is the increasing interface between border drones and national security and military missions.

The prevalence of military jargon used by CBP officials – such as “defense in depth” and “situational awareness” – points to at least a rhetorical overlapping of border control and military strategy. Another sign of the increasing coincidence between CBP/OAM drone program and the military is that the commanders and deputies of OAM are retired military officers. Both Major General Michael Kostelnik and his successor Major General Randolph Alles, retired from U.S. Marines, were highly placed military commanders involved in drone development and procurement. Kostelnik was involved in the development of the Predator by General Atomics since the mid-1990s and was an early proponent of providing Air Force funding to weaponize the Predator.  As commander of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, Alles was a leading proponent of having each military branch work with military contractors to develop their own drone breeds, including near replicas of the Predator manufactured for the Army by General Atomics.57

In promoting – and justifying – the DHS drone program, Kostelnik routinely alluded to the national security potential of drones slated for border security duty. On several occasions Kostelnik pointed to the seamless interoperability with DOD UAV forces. At a moment’s notice, Kostelnik said that OAM could be “CHOP’ed” – meaning a Change in Operational Command from DHS to DOD.58

DHS has not released operational data about CBP/OAM drone operations. Therefore, the extent of the participation of DHS drones in domestic and international operations is unknown. But statements by CBP officials and media reports from the Caribbean point to a rapidly expanding participation of DHS Guardian UAVs in drug-interdiction and other unspecified operations as far south as Panama. CBP states that OAM “routinely provides air and marine support to other federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies” and “works with the U.S. military in joint international anti-smuggling operations and in support of National Security Special Events [such as the Olympics].” 

According to Kostelnik, CBP planned a “Spring 2011 deployment of the Guardian to a Central American country in association with Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF-South) based at the naval station in Key West, Florida.59 JIATF-South is a subordinate command to the United States Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM), whose geographical purview includes the Caribbean, Central America and South America. In mid-2012, CBP/OAM participated in a JIATF-South collaborative venture called “Operation Caribbean Focus” that involved flight over the Caribbean Sea and nations in the region – with the Dominican Republic acting as the regional host for the Guardian operations, which CBP/OAM considers a “prototype for future transit zone UAS deployments.”

CBP says that OAM drones have not been deployed within Mexico, but notes that “OAM works in collaboration with the Government of Mexico in addressing border security issues,” without specifying the form and objectives of this collaboration.60 As part of the U.S. global drug war and as an extension of border security, unarmed drones are also crossing the border into Mexico. The U.S. Northern Command has acknowledged that the U.S. military does fly a $38-million Global Hawk drone into Mexico to assist the Mexico’s war against the drug cartels.61

Communities, state legislatures and even some congressional members are proceeding to enact legislation and revise ordinances to decriminalize or legalize the consumption of drugs, especially marijuana, targeted by the federal government’s drug war of more than four decades. At the same time, DHS has been escalating its contributions to the domestic and international drug war – in the name of both homeland security and national security.  Drug seizures on the border and drug interdiction over coastal and neighboring waters are certainly the top operative priorities of OAM.  Enlisting its Guardian drones in SOUTHCOM’s drug interdiction efforts underscores the increasing emphasis within the entire CBP on counternarcotic operations. 

CBP is a DHS agency that is almost exclusively focused on tactics. While CBP as the umbrella agency and the Office of the Border Patrol and OAM all have strategic plans, these plans are marked by their rigid military frameworks, their startling absence of serious strategic thinking, and the diffuse distinctions between strategic goals and tactics. As a result of the border security buildup, south-north drug flows (particularly cocaine and more high-value drugs) have shifted back to marine smuggling, mainly through the Caribbean, but also through the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific.62   

Rather than reevaluating drug prohibition and drug control frameworks for border policy, CBP/OAM has rationalized the procurement of more UAVs on the shifts in the geographical arenas of the drug war – albeit couching the tactical changes in the new drug war language of “transnational criminal organizations” and “narcoterrorism.” The overriding framework for CBP/OAM operations is evolving from border security and homeland security to national security, as recent CBP presentations about its Guardian deployments illustrates. 

Shortly before retiring after seven years as OAM first chief, Major General Kostelnik told a gathering of military contractors: “CPB’s UAS Deployment Vision strengthens the National Security Response Capability.”63 He may well be right, but the U.S. public and Congress need to know if DHS plans to institute guidelines and limits that regulate the extent of DHS operational collaboration with DOD and the CIA. 

IV. No Transparency, No Accountability, No Defined Limits to Homeland Security Drone Missions

The UAV program of CBP’s Office of Air and Marine is not top secret – there are no secret ops, no targeted killings, no “signature” strikes against suspected terrorists, no clandestine bases – like the CIA and U.S. military UAV operations overseas. 

While the UAV program under DHS isn’t classified, information about the program is scarce – shielded by evasive program officials, the classification of key documents, and the failure of CBP/OAM to share information about the number, objectives and performance of its UAV operations. DHS has also not been forthcoming about its partnerships and shared missions with local law enforcement, foreign governments and the U.S. military and intelligence sectors. 

CBP has kept a tight lid on its drone program. Over the past nine years, CBP has steadily expanded its UAV program without providing any detailed information about the program’s strategic plan, performance and total costs. Information about the homeland security drones has been limited, for the most part, to a handful of CBP announcements about new drone purchases and a series of unverifiable CBP statistics about drone-related drug seizures and immigrant arrests. 

Testimony in House and Senate hearings about the role of drones in border security by CBP has been restricted, with few exceptions, to undocumented assertions and anecdotes about the achievements of the border drones. CBP has declined to share documents about its drone program with the Center for International Policy and other public-education organizations, asserting, among other reasons, that they are “law-enforcement sensitive” or not in their possession.

These requested documents include the OAM strategic plan (which calls for two dozen drones), the report of the “pilot study” of Predators organized with General Atomics in 2004 that CBP claims proved their value as border security instruments, and a 2010 report to Congress in reference to its UAV program. The three reports cited above were all referenced by DHS’s Office of Inspector General in a report published in May 2012.64 DHS has also failed to respond favorably to public-records requests by the Electronic Frontier Foundation for “records and logs of CBP drone flights conducted in conjunction with other agencies.”65

It is unlikely that the CBP/OAM program is involved in the type of drone strikes that have sparked rage, indignation over civil rights violations, and counterattacks by nonstate terrorists. Despite the lack of transparency, it is highly unlikely that CBP Predators and Guardians have been the tools of “hunter-killer” missions of CIA and military Predators, Hunters and Reapers.

Still, the lack of transparency and accountability that characterizes the homeland security drone program is worrisome – not least because of the commitments of hundreds of millions of dollars to these operations. At least several hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent – based on procurement records – but we don’t even know the entire financial commitment to homeland drones because DHS has never provided an accounting of all procurement, maintenance, staffing, data-processing and service contract expenses.

Clearly, CBP needs to be more transparent and accountable. Of the 14 DHS agencies, it receives the largest portion – 21 percent – of the $59 billion annual DHS budget.66 Although other DHS agencies – such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (which process visas and naturalization petitions) – are experiencing budget cuts (8 percent decrease for FEMA), CBP is receiving a 2 percent increase, even as illegal immigration flows have plummeted to historic lows.

Yet, it is more than a budget concern. Shortly before retiring at the end of 2012, Major General Kostelnik asserted that the “Air and Marine UAS Operations Remain on the Leading Edge” – the title of his October presentation of a military contractors association.  It’s not that the DHS itself has become the leading edge of drone technology. Kostelnik was referring more to the way CBP/OAM is pushing the border security envelope. 

Under the new OAM office established under Kostelnik’s leadership, these UAS operations have, in Kostelnik’s words, done much more than complement other manifestations of the low-tech and high-tech border security buildup. Among other things, the unmanned systems, according to CBP, are:

  • “Shaping the UAS policy debate;”
  • “Strengthen[ing] the National Security Response Capability;” 
  • Providing “rapid contingency responses” to federal, state, and local agencies;
  • Functioning as the “leading edge deployment of UAS in the national airspace;” and
  • Increasing involvement in “Caribbean and foreign deployments.”

With the UAV program, as with other border-security operations (in particular its many high-tech initiatives), CBP has acted as if exempt from the transparency, accountability and performance evaluations that apply to other federal agencies. Much like the military and the CIA, CBP shields itself behind its post-9/11 “security” mission. 



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