Although variants of the Predator are configured to carry armed missiles, it is important to note that CBP drones will not bomb U.S. citizens. There is a common misperception, perpetuated by the media, that all drones drop bombs. But less than 4 percent of the Pentagon's 6,316 drones, for instance, are armed and capable of conducting strike missions. And in a voice vote regarding DHS funding on June 7, the House of Representatives stipulated: "None of the funds made available by this Act may be used for the purchase, operation, or maintenance of armed unmanned aerial vehicles."
The primary issue with CBP drones is not that they are used, but how they are used -- specifically, that drones are rushed into the field before the requisite framework, plans, and resources are fully developed. A report released by the DHS inspector general in May found that "CBP procured unmanned aircraft before implementing adequate plans to do the following: achieve the desired level of operation; acquire sufficient funding to provide necessary operations, maintenance, and equipment; and coordinate and support stakeholder needs." At the same time, CBP Predator B drones cost more than three times more to fly per hour than their Department of Defense counterparts. Despite the high costs, some members of Congress -- specifically the 58-member Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus -- continue to push drones on the CBP. Last fall, Congress appropriated $32 million to the CBP to purchase three additional Predator drones, after which a CBP official acknowledged, "We didn't ask for them."
As a result, CBP drones have had limited success in the field so far. In 2011, CBP drones helped to locate 7,600 pounds of marijuana, valued at a paltry $19 million. Drones also reportedly laid the groundwork for the apprehension of 4,865 undocumented immigrants between 2006 and 2011 -- an underwhelming statistic considering that a total of 327,577 people were captured in 2011 alone.
The good news about domestic drones is that, unlike the "covert" missions conducted abroad by the Pentagon and CIA, there is a great deal of publicly available information detailing their bases, operational command and control, missions, and costs. And, in contrast to media portrayals, domestic drones used for CBP missions enjoy measured support among U.S. citizens. In a recent poll, 64 percent of respondents approved of the use of drones "to control illegal immigration on the nation's border," and 80 percent "to help with search and rescue missions." (Sixty-seven percent were opposed to drones enforcing speed limits -- even though manned aircraft already perform this function in 19 states across the country.)
If properly planned for and funded, drones can play a critical, niche role in monitoring U.S. borders. But if there is anything to be learned from America's use of drones abroad, it is that mission creep follows. Once security forces have access to the near real-time video and radar surveillance that drones can provide, they become addicted -- and subsequently develop new missions for how drones can be used. This is the reason that, in order to assure the protection of privacy and civil liberties, there must be rigorous, sustained, and effective oversight by Congress and the courts of all drones in the United States.