Drones patrolling the U.S. border are poorly managed and ineffective at stopping illegal immigration, and the government should abandon a $400-million plan to expand their use, according to an internal watchdog report released Tuesday.
The 8-year-old drone program has cost more than expected, according to a report by the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general, John Roth.
Rather than spend more on drones, the department should "put those funds to better use," Roth recommended. He described the Predator B drones flown along the border by U.S. Customs and Border Protection as "dubious achievers."
"Notwithstanding the significant investment, we see no evidence that the drones contribute to a more secure border, and there is no reason to invest additional taxpayer funds at this time," Roth said in a statement.
The audit concluded that Customs and Border Protection could better use the funds on manned aircraft and ground surveillance technology.
The drones were designed to fly over the border to spot smugglers and illegal border crossers. But auditors found that 78% of the time that agents had planned to use the craft, they were grounded because of bad weather, budget constraints or maintenance problems.
Even when aloft, auditors found, the drones contributed little. Three drones flying around the Tucson area helped apprehend about 2,200 people illegally crossing the border in 2013, fewer than 2% of the 120,939 apprehended that year in the area.
Border Patrol supervisors had planned on using drones to inspect ground-sensor alerts. But a drone was used in that scenario only six times in 2013.
Auditors found that officials underestimated the cost of the drones by leaving out operating costs such as pilot salaries, equipment and overhead. Adding such items increased the flying cost nearly fivefold, to $12,255 per hour.
"It really doesn't feel like [Customs and Border Protection] has a good handle on how it is using its drones, how much it costs to operate the drones, where that money is coming from or whether it is meeting any of its performance metrics," said Jennifer Lynch, a lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based privacy and digital rights group.
The report's conclusions will make it harder for officials to justify further investment in the border surveillance drones, especially at a time when Homeland Security's budget is at the center of the battle over President Obama's program to give work permits to millions of immigrants in the country illegally. Each Predator B system costs about $20 million.
"People think these kinds of surveillance technologies will be a silver bullet," said Jay Stanley, a privacy expert at the American Civil Liberties Union. "Time after time, we see the practical realities of these systems don't live up to the hype."
Customs and Border Protection, which is part of Homeland Security, operates the fleet of nine long-range Predator B drones from bases in Arizona, Texas and North Dakota.
The agency purchased 11 drones, but one crashed in Arizona in 2006 and another fell into the Pacific Ocean off San Diego after a mechanical failure last year.
Agency officials said in response to the audit that they had no plans to expand the fleet aside from replacing the Predator that crashed last year. The agency is authorized to spend an additional $433 million to buy up to 14 more drones.
The drones — unarmed versions of the MQ-9 Reaper drone flown by the Air Force to hunt targets in Pakistan, Somalia and elsewhere — fly the vast majority of their missions in narrowly defined sections of the Southwest border, the audit found.
They spent most of their time along 100 miles of border in Arizona near Tucson and 70 miles of border in Texas.
Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) has promoted the use of drones along the border but believes the agency should improve how it measures their effectiveness.
Homeland Security "can't prove the program is effective because they don't have the right measures," Cuellar said in an interview. "The technology is good, but how you implement and use it — that is another question."
The audit also said that drones had been flown to help the FBI, the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Such missions have long frustrated Border Patrol agents, who complain that drones and other aircraft aren't available when they need them, said Shawn Moran, vice president of the Border Patrol agents' union.
"We saw the drones were being lent out to many entities for nonborder-related operations and we said, 'These drones, if they belong to [Customs and Border Protection], should be used to support [its] operations primarily,'" Moran said.