Predator drones, tested out in this country’s distant war zones, have played an increasingly prominent role in the up-armoring of the U.S.-Mexican border. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) launched its first Predator in 2004, but only really ramped up drone use in March 2013. There have been approximately 10,000 Predator flights along that border since. The agency had plans to expand its ten-Predator fleet — nine after a $12 million maritime drone crashed off the California coast, as those robotic planes are wont to do — to 24. It was going to dispatch some of them to the Canadian border as well. (You never know, after all, what dark forces might descend on us from the chilly north.) The CBP even got into the chummy habit of encouraging interagency drone-addiction by loaning its Predators out to the FBI, the Texas Department of Public Safety, and the U.S. Forest Service, among other places. You might say that the CBP was distinctly high on drones.
Only one problem: the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general recently audited the use of drones on the border and issued a scathing report, calling them “dubious achievers” and essentially declaring them an enormous waste of money, time, and personnel. At $12,255 a flight hour (when not simply grounded), military-grade drones turned out to cost way more than the CBP estimated or reported, flew far less often, and helped find a mere 2% of the immigrants crossing the border without papers. As Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post reported, “Less than one-tenth of 1 percent of border-crossing apprehensions were attributed to drone detection.” The inspector general suggested that the CBP should, among other things, shelve its plans to expand its drone fleet (at the cost of a mere $443 million).
Based on such a report from the IG — the CBP is part of the Department of Homeland Security — you might assume that it would be curtains for the drone program. But if you’re a betting kind of guy in twenty-first-century Washington, you’re not going to put your money on any self-respecting part of the national security state giving up, or even cutting back, on its high-tech toys. Drones, after all, are sexy as hell and what self-respecting government official wouldn’t want a machine onto which you could attach even more seductively high-tech devices like Vader (think deep, breathy voice, though the acronym stands for “Vehicle and Dismount Exploitation Radar”), a set of sensors that can detect motion on the ground. So CBP has instead struck back, accusing the inspector general of cherry-picking his data and misconstruing more or less everything.
Meanwhile, the drones continue to fly and the CBP, as Todd Miller who covers the militarization of America’s borders for TomDispatch has long noted, remains gaga for high-tech border toys of just about any sort. Today, Miller and Gabriel Schivone suggest that, whatever waste and extravagance may be involved, our already heavily technologized borders and the increasingly robot-filled skies over them are just at the beginning of an era of border-closing high-tech extravaganzas. When it comes to visions of how to shut down the world, it’s evidently time to call in the real experts, the Israelis, who live in a country without fully demarcated borders, and yet have had a remarkable amount of experience building high-tech walls. Tom Engelhardt
It was October 2012. Roei Elkabetz, a brigadier general for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), was explaining his country’s border policing strategies. In his PowerPoint presentation, a photo of the enclosure wall that isolates the Gaza Strip from Israel clicked onscreen. “We have learned lots from Gaza,” he told the audience. “It’s a great laboratory.”
Elkabetz was speaking at a border technology conference and fair surrounded by a dazzling display of technology — the components of his boundary-building lab. There were surveillance balloons with high-powered cameras floating over a desert-camouflaged armored vehicle made by Lockheed Martin. There were seismic sensor systems used to detect the movement of people and other wonders of the modern border-policing world. Around Elkabetz, you could see vivid examples of where the future of such policing was heading, as imagined not by a dystopian science fiction writer but by some of the top corporate techno-innovators on the planet.