Pubdate: Tue, 06 Aug 2013
Source: Tulsa World (OK)
Copyright: 2013 Orlando Sentinel
Author: Mark K. Matthews, Orlando Sentinel (MCT)


Some Critics Say the Cost Far Exceeds the Value of Results.

WASHINGTON (MCT) - Though it's best known for rocket launches, Cape 
Canaveral Air Force Station is now home to another type of aircraft: 
military-style drones used to spy on drug smugglers trying to reach 
Florida from the Caribbean.

Since 2010, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has maintained a small 
base there as part of its effort to expand surveillance along U.S. 
borders - and increasingly for other purposes as well. Logs show the 
pilotless aircraft in Florida "supported" other law-enforcement 
agencies about 100 times in the past year on missions such as routine 
patrols and ship surveillance.

But now, an odd-couple mix of budget hawks and privacy advocates is 
seeking to reduce or eliminate the agency's fleet of 10 drones, which 
have cost at least $466 million over the past several years. Critics 
say the program is a costly boondoggle in search of a mission.

An analyst with the left-leaning Center for International Policy said 
drones are an "utter failure" in trying to stop people from entering 
the country illegally, so their operators must validate their 
existence by finding other work, such as doing drug interdiction with 
other agencies.

"What they have done to justify their mission is to expand it," said 
Tom Barry, who in April published a report on the drones. Especially 
worrisome, he said, was increased cooperation between CBP and the 
U.S. military. "This is an entry point to breaking down the barriers 
between the military and domestic law enforcement," he said.

But Lothar Eckardt, who oversees the drone program at Customs and 
Border Protection, says the Cape Canaveral drones have proved their 
worth, contributing to five busts around the Dominican Republic in 
2012 that netted about a ton of marijuana and nearly 2 tons of cocaine.

A return trip to the Dominican Republic this year yielded similar 
results, he said, as a drone aided a mission that forced smugglers to 
jettison about 2,600 pounds of cocaine.

Eckardt dismissed concerns by privacy advocates that the pilotless 
aircraft could be used to spy on Floridians, because they are not 
assigned to domestic operations.

"Our mission is not to go looking in your backyard," Eckardt said.

CBP has spent at least $410 million developing its fleet of 10 
drones, manufactured by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, and 
roughly $55 million on operations and maintenance from 2006 to 2011.

A 2012 study conducted by an internal watchdog at the U.S. Department 
of Homeland Security found that CBP had not "adequately planned" for 
its drone fleet, including having enough ground control equipment. 
The agency also needed to transfer about $25 million from other 
programs in 2010 to cover funding shortfalls in the program.

And other than anecdotal evidence, the drones' impact on illegal 
immigration or the drug trade is unclear because CBP did not provide 
figures on either. Eckardt said the 2012 Dominican Republic mission 
was the only major bust that the Cape Canaveral drones assisted that year.

That didn't stop the U.S. Senate from including funding for new CBP 
drones as part of the massive immigration-reform package it passed in June.

And Sen. Bill Nelson, DFla., unsuccessfully sought additional money 
for a "dramatic increase in the number of unmanned drones that would 
be flying out of Cape Canaveral," according to his office.

Nelson has vowed to keep fighting for the money, arguing that 
attempts to smuggle in people illegally as well as drugs via the 
Caribbean will increase if the Southwest border is secured.

"If you've made the land border almost foolproof, what do you think 
is going to happen?" Nelson said. "Just like water, if you dam it up 
in one place, it's going to try to go around."

Then there's the question of privacy. The aerospace industry expects 
that thousands of drones could be cruising over the U.S. by the end 
of the decade. The proliferation has worried privacy advocates and 
led some state legislatures, including Florida's, to limit their use.

Civil-liberties groups have warned that the use of drones by border 
patrol agents could lead to domestic spying. And they say the drones 
are being used for more tasks than initially intended.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom