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Drones Over the Homeland: From Border Security to National Security

By Tom Barry

19dronr2013_0519dr_.jpg

A Predator B aircraft in Palmdale, Calif., on Dec. 7, 2009. To help spot and track smugglers, the Homeland Security Department is expanding its use of drones, the unmanned aircraft widely used in war zones, beyond the Mexican and Canadian borders to the Caribbean and possibly other seas. (Photo: Ann Johansson / The New York Times)

May 19, 2013

Public attention and Congressional review, writes Barry, should focus on the increasing militarization of border control, especially in the management of the border drone program.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) says it is the "leading edge" of drone deployment in the United States. Since 2005, DHS has been purchasing Predator drones - officially called unmanned aerial systems (UAS) - to "secure the border," yet these unarmed Predator drones are also steadily creeping into local law enforcement, international drug-interdiction and national security missions - including across the border into the heart of Mexico.

DHS will likely double its drone contingent to two dozen unmanned UAS produced by General Atomics as part of the border security component of any immigration reform.  The prominence of border security in immigration reform can't be missed.  The leading reform proposal, offered by eight US senators, is the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 - which proposes to spend $6.5 billion in additional "border security" measures, mostly high-tech surveillance by drones and ground surveillance systems.

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 that, without more regulations in place, the program will accelerate the transition to what critics call a "surveillance society." Also alarming is the mission creep of border drones, managed by the DHS' Customs and Border Protection (CPB) agency with increasing interface between border drones, international drug interdiction operations and other military-directed national security missions.

The prevalence of military jargon used by US Customs and Border (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/Office of Airforce and Marine (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 US Marines, were highly placed military commanders involved in drone development and procurement.

Kostelnik has been 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.

In promoting - and justifying - the DHS drone program, Kostelnik has routinely alluded to the national security potential of drones slated for border security duty. On several occasions Kostelnik has pointed to the seamless interoperability with Department of Defense (DOD) Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) forces. At a moment's notice, Kostelnik said, that OAM (Office of Airforce and Marine) could be "CHOP'ed" - meaning undergo a Change in Operational Command from DHS to DOD.

DHS has not released operational data about CBP (Customs and Border Protection)/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 US military in joint international antismuggling 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." 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 (drone) deployments."

CBP has been secretly deploying Predators into Mexican territory. In its description of the OAM operations, CBP states, "OAM works in collaboration with the Government of Mexico in addressing border security issues." But it has never publicly specified the form and the objectives of this collaboration.  Nor has it publicly acknowledged that its Predator drones have entered Mexican territory.

As part of the US global drug war and as an extension of border security, the US Northern Command acknowledged that the military was deploying - with the approval of the Mexican government - the $38 million Global Hawk drone into Mexico as part of the joint US-Mexico attempt to suppress the Mexican drug cartels.  

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." As part of the US global drug war and as an extension of border security, unarmed drones are also crossing the border into Mexico. The US Northern Command has acknowledged that the US military does fly a $38-million Global Hawk drone into Mexico to assist the Mexico's war against the drug cartels.

An April 28 Washington Post article by Dana Priest raises new questions and concerns about the increasing mission creep of homeland drones into foreign missions involving the U.S. military, CIA and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). 

President Felipe Calderˇn began requesting US drone flights into Mexico on targeted killings missions soon after he became president in December 2006. However, it wasn't until the July 2009 killing of a US Border Patrol agent by suspected Mexican drug smugglers that the US government began deploying unarmed Predator drones.

According to Washington Post reporter Priest, "[H]ours after Mexican smugglers shot and killed a U.S. Border Patrol agent while trying to steal his night-vision goggles, U.S. authorities were given permission to fly an unarmed Predator drone into Mexican airspace to hunt for suspects. Intelligence from the flights was passed to the Mexican army. Within 12 hours, the army brought back more information, according to two U.S. officials involved in the operation. Eventually, four suspects were captured. Three pleaded guilty, one is awaiting trial and a fifth remains at large."

 "That first flight dispelled Mexican fears that U.S. authorities would try to take control of drone operations," noted the Washington Post article, "An agreement was reached that would temporarily give operational control to Mexican authorities during such flights. U.S. pilots sitting in the states would control the planes remotely, but a Mexican military or federal police commander would be able to direct the pilot within the boundaries of a Mexico-designated grid. By late 2010, drones were flying deeper into Mexico to spy on the cartels ..."

CBP has never stated for the public record that its Predators are being deployed over Mexican territory. In an attempt to clarify the nature and extent of Predator surveillance in Mexico, Truthout asked CBP to confirm that OAM drones stationed along the border were indeed being deployed into Mexico and whether CBP maintained operational control of these missions or whether CBP drones were piloted by nonagency personnel from the military or intelligence sector.

CBP officials declined to speak for attribution. Instead, a CBP official responded anonymously and ambiguously, stating:

"As part of the bilateral security cooperation, the Government of Mexico has asked the US government - in certain instances - for the support of unmanned aircraft to gather specific intelligence, particularly along the border region, in order to achieve concrete security goals. When such operations take place, Mexican authorities have the operational authorization, oversight and supervision.

"In 2009, the United States requested approval from the Mexican government to fly in Mexican airspace to support law enforcement officers assigned to search and apprehend Agent Rosas' murder suspects who fled into Mexico.

"During the current administration, the emphasis on the collaboration of information sharing has assisted in the fight of criminal organizations that affects populations on both sides of the border. Within this framework, information and greater intelligence gathering capabilities have been made available to both governments, to include support of unmanned aircraft."

Left hanging was the question about the role of DOD and the intelligence sector in piloting CBP drones and in analyzing the resulting surveillance data. It also remains unclear whether the Mexican government interacts directly with DHS and CBP/OAM or, in making its requests for drone surveillance, it bypasses DHS entirely.

Increased border security funding and more drones are a core part of all immigration reform proposals being introduced in Congress. However, because of the secrecy and lack of transparency and accountability that is systemic in the DHS border agencies, it is likely neither the Congress nor the US public understands that increasing the number of border security Predators also likely increases the foreign deployment of these drones in nonborder missions over foreign nations and international waters.

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 counter-narcotic operations.

CBP is a DHS agency that is almost exclusively focused on tactics. While CBP, as the umbrella agency, 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.

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 illustrate.

Shortly before retiring after seven years as OAM's first chief, Major Gen. Kostelnik told a gathering of military contractors: "CPB's UAS Deployment Vision strengthens the National Security Response Capability." He may well be right, but the US 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.



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