David Olive

Oct 18, 2010

Last week, speaking at the Migration Policy Institute, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Commissioner Alan Bersin gave a glowing review of the successes CBP was having in meeting its mission. Whether one agrees with Bersin”s overall assessment, there was one area that jumped out at me that begs further inquiry.

Included in his remarks was a reference to DHS Secretary Napolitano”s recent announcement of Predator flights out of Corpus Christi, Texas. Commissioner Bersin followed that intro about CBP’s unmanned aerial systems (UASs) with the following statement:

“With the deployment of a UAS in Texas, DHS unmanned aerial capabilities now patrol the entire Southwest Border – from the El Centro Sector in California all the way to the Gulf of Mexico in Texas – providing critical aerial surveillance assistance to personnel on the ground.

“I believe that UASs are a crucial part of the future of border security efforts. We need to fully integrate their capabilities to support our officers and agents, while also standing ready to provide these assets when they are needed for other purposes, such as disaster response.”


According to press reports, CBP”s seventh Predator won”t begin operating in Texas until December, 2010. Getting to the truth with DHS, and especially CBP, is rather difficult these days, it would seem.

One will note that Commissioner Bersin was clever in his wording, in that he did not SPECIFICALLY talk about the need to deploy Predator UASs, but about UASs in general. To my mind, he was being too clever by half, but he is not the first government official to use verbal misdirection to give himself wiggle-room for a later time.

If the outrageously expensive, limited-effectiveness Predator was not what he was talking about, I think he ought to say so explicitly. And if the Commissioner won”t volunteer an answer, someone in Congress or the press ought to keep asking him about it until he provides a direct answer.

By any objective analysis, the cost of acquisition, operation and maintenance of the Predator for border surveillance use makes its cost-benefit ratio highly questionable.

At a time of constrained budgets, with rumors of significant cuts coming in the FY12 budget, I cannot see how DHS can justify spending another cent on Predators, especially when it is believed the recent DHS Analysis of Alternatives allegedly shows that many other technologies are far more effective and less costly to deploy to assist agents in the field.  

This week, Secretary Napolitano and Commissioner Bersin are scheduled to go to San Diego to talk about border enforcement issues, including technology use to aid Border Patrol agents. I hope someone will ask Commissioner Bersin how much CBP is spending on UASs, how many people it takes to operate even one of them, how the Predator objectively measures up against other methods at “undirected detection” (meaning can it find a person or object without having an agent in the field telling it where to look) and whether CBP intends to continue cutting out overtime payments to existing CBP personnel so that it can afford to operate huge aerial platforms like the Predator.

The more Commissioner Bersin brags about UASs, the more questions it ought to raise.

This piece was on Security Debrief.


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