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A Dangerously Slippery Slope

Drones and the Dream of Remote Control in the Borderlands

by JOSEPH NEVINS

Drones along the U.S. boundaries with Mexico and Canada are coming under criticism from an unexpected source: the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—or, more specifically, the department’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG). The critique helps open the door to those who oppose not only the increasing “eyes in the sky” in the borderlands, but also the larger apparatus of state surveillance and repression.

The OIG, charged with promoting “effectiveness, efficiency, and economy in the Department of Homeland Security’s programs and operations,” has undertaken an audit of the “unmanned aerial vehicle” program of U .S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). According to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, which obtained a draft audit of the OIG report, “[t]he nine Predators that help police America’s borders have yet to prove very useful in stopping contraband or illegal immigrants.”

DHS has spent more than $250 million over the last six years to purchase the fleet of remotely-piloted surveillance aircraft. At the same time, reports the Times, “border drones require an hour of maintenance for every hour they fly, cost more to operate than anticipated, and are frequently grounded by rain or other bad weather.”

At a recent “Drone Summit” in Washington, D.C. hosted by CodePink, Reprieve, and the Center for Constitutional Rights, analyst Tom Barry made a similar argument. He pointed out (as he done previously in writing) that for every 15 ground sensor “hits” to which CBP drones respond, about 12 are caused by wind, two by animals, and one by human beings.

More broadly, Barry states that that the CBP has failed to offer any documentation to support its claim that the drones are cost-effective and that they are “force multipliers”—in other words, that they enhance what individual Border Patrol agents can do. Instead, it seems, the use of the aircraft consumes personnel rather than freeing them up.

In addition to crews needed for launching and landing, piloting and navigation, a large number of people are needed for the management and analysis of the huge amount of data and images gathered by each drone. These tasks alone, says Barry, citing estimates from Michael Kostelnik, the head of CBP’s Office of Air and Marine, mean that 50 or more people are involved in a typical drone mission.

Such numbers led Barry at the Drone Summit to call upon DHS to suspend the drone program until an adequate cost-benefit analysis is conducted.

But what if it came to be shown that the Predators are actually cost-effective? Would they then be OK?

Medea Benjamin, one of the co-founders of CodePink and one of the organizers of the Washington, DC gathering, powerfully demonstrates the slippery slope that these “unmanned vehicles” embody, and the need to oppose them as a matter of principle as tools of warfare abroad—and, by extension, in the U.S. borderlands. In an important and valuable new book, Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control, Benjamin shows the dangers inherent in the militarized aircraft.

In 2000, the Pentagon had fewer than 50 aerial drones, reports Benjamin. By 2010, it had almost 7,500—the vast majority of them mini-drones for surveillance purposes. This number does not include those held and piloted by the Central Intelligence Agency, nor those of the State Department. (Yes, the State Department has its own fleet of UAVs; they are unarmed, it insists, and only used for surveillance to protect the huge staff it maintains in Iraq in order to, in Benjamin’s words, “meddle in the country’s affairs.”)

As the book title suggests, Benjamin focuses her attention on the aspect of drones a U.S. audience is most familiar with—the thousands of “targeted assassinations” the United States has carried out over the last decade or so (especially under the Obama Administration) in countries ranging from Pakistan to the Philippines to Yemen. In doing so, she examines the painful human toll of what John O. Brennan, the Obama White House’s lead counterterrorism adviser, calls the ”exceptional proficiency, precision of what we’ve been able to develop,” as well as matters of international law, morality, and efforts around the world to put an end to the barbarity. (p. 103)

Benjamin also illuminates the many-headed monster that is the military-industrial-congressional complex, and the incestuous relations within that facilitate the rapid growth of the various drone programs while simultaneously shaping that complex in important ways. A key one is the utter banality with which what are effectively extrajudicial executions are carried out today.

That these murders-at-a-distance incite so little protest from the U.S. public and almost none from Congress, speaks to, among other things, how supportive of, immune and, perhaps, resigned, to the violence of American empire broad swaths of U.S. society have become. It also demonstrates how easily the previously unacceptable can become normalized.

Benjamin quotes Daniel Reisner, a former head of the Israel’s military’s legal department, who asserts that, under international law, something forbidden can effectively become legal when enough countries do it. “If you do something for long enough, the world will accept it,” he declares. “We [the Israeli state] invented the targeted assassination thesis and we had to push it. . . . [Today] it is in the bounds of the center of legitimacy.”

Not too long ago, the current level of surveillance we see in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands also would have been unacceptable. Today it is the norm—and increasingly so. Just last week, for example, DHS head Janet Napolitano announced that CBP drone coverage of the northern border now includes not only North Dakota, but the region stretching to eastern Washington state. Meanwhile, reports Tom Barry, the CBP’s strategic plan calls for the agency to have 24 drones eventually.

There’s little reason to think that Congress will thwart the plan as, up until this point, the legislative body has shown little to no inclination to call into question drones on the border. An article in The Washington Post that Benjamin discusses notes that Kostelnik says that lawmakers have never asked him to justify the CBP’s drone program. “Instead,” he says, “the question is: Why can’t we have more of them in my district.”

The use of the CBP drones is not limited to matters of boundary enforcement. As disclosed by the Los Angeles Times in December, a local county sheriff in North Dakota got the CBP to send one of its two Predator B drones based in the state to inspect the property of a family reputed to be violently antigovernment in the name of searching for six missing cows. What’s more, the paper reports, local “police say they have used two unarmed Predators based at Grand Forks Air Force Base to fly at least two dozen surveillance flights since June.” Meanwhile, the FBI and Drug Enforcement Agency have also used the aircraft for domestic operations.

Where this is going is anyone’s guess, but examining other fronts in the seemingly ubiquitous homeland security efforts might yield some clues.

Montgomery County, Texas—just outside of Houston—is one place to look. There, the Sheriff’s Office, with a grant from DHS, bought a $300,000 unmanned aerial vehicle in October from Vanguard Defense Industries. While a number of police departments now have these, what makes Montgomery County’s a ShadowHawk helicopter unique is that it has the capacity to have a shotgun mounted on it, or less than lethal devices such as tasers or a gun that fires bean bags known as a “stun baton.” The chief, according to press reports, says that the department has no immediate plans to outfit the drone with weapons.

The lack of “immediate plans” is hardly assuring given how much technology seems to drive policy. As Langdon Winner argues and illustrates in his classic book, The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology, “technology goes where it has never been. Technological development proceeds steadily from what it has already transformed and used up toward that which is still untouched.”

Such a tendency combined with the ugly politico-territorial context which reigns in the U.S-Mexico borderlands makes it far from inconceivable that—among other ugly possibilities—small drones armed with “less than lethal,” yet all-too-often deadly, weapons such as a taser could emerge there as a tool for subduing unauthorized migrants.

Drones, Benjamin asserts in her conclusion, “aren’t a unique evil.” They neither revolutionize surveillance, nor warfare, but embody and advance their evolution, while making them more user-friendly and effective tools of control and death. It for this reason that, in the foreword to Drone Warfare, Barbara Ehrenreich contends that ending war requires that we “take aim at all the weaponry that makes it possible and even inviting . . . and at the industries that manufacture them.”

This insight and call-to-action applies just as much to the tools used to wage war in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands as it does in Afghanistan. In relation to both sites and beyond, strong collective action is needed before the dreams of those with further visions of remote control—and remotely-administered brutality—become a nightmare-like reality.

Joseph Nevins teaches geography at Vassar College. He is the author of Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid (City Lights Books, 2008) and Operation Gatekeeper and Beyond: The War on “Illegals” and the Remaking of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary (Routledge, 2010).

This article was originally published by NACLA.