“Hey, where’s that guy going?” the mission controller asked the drone’s camera operator, who toggled his joystick, glued to the monitors like a teenager with a Christmas morning Xbox.
This is the semi-covert cutting edge of homeland security, where federal law enforcement authorities are rapidly expanding a military-style unmanned aerial reconnaissance operation along the U.S.-Mexico border — a region that privacy watchdogs say includes a lot of American back yards.
Fans of the Predators say the $20 million aircraft are a perfect platform to keep a watchful eye on America’s rugged borders, but critics say the drones are expensive, invasive and finicky toys that have done little — compared with what Border Patrol agents do on the ground — to stem the flow of illegal immigrants, drug smugglers or terrorists.
Over Arizona, the Predator circled a ranch, as unseen and silent as a hunting owl. On a bank of computer screens, the monitoring team watched the truck, which appeared in ghostly infrared black and white, turn and pull up by a mobile home. In the yard, three sleeping dogs quickly woke up, their tails wagging.
“Welcome home,” one of the agents said.
A popular security solution
Eight Predators fly for the Customs and Border Protection agency — five, and soon to be six, along the southwestern border. After a slow rollout that began in 2005, drones now patrol most of the southern boundary, from Yuma, Ariz., to Brownsville, Tex.
For supporters, Predators are the new, sexy, futuristic fix for immigration control. They are irresistible to border hawks and the “Drone Caucus” in Congress, who consider the aircraft a must-have technology to meet the threat of spillover violence — yet unrealized — from Mexican drug cartels.
Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.) has said that the drones are so popular that a Predator could be elected president. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.) pronounced domestic drones “invaluable.” Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) called them “ideal for border security and counter-drug missions.” Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a GOP presidential contender, argues that the solution to security along the frontier is not a border fence but more Predators.
In his trips to testify on Capitol Hill, Michael Kostelnik, the retired Air Force general and former test pilot who runs the Office of Air and Marine for the CBP, said he has never been challenged in Congress about the appropriate use of domestic drones. “Instead, the question is: Why can’t we have more of them in my district?” Kostelnik said.
Planning documents for the CBP envision as many as 24 Predators and their maritime variants in the air by 2016, giving the agency the ability to deploy a drone anywhere over the continental United States within three hours.