It was a really thoughtful gesture, but officials with the Department of Homeland Security kinda wish Congress had held onto the gift receipt for those spy drones.
In a gift-giving mix-up that outdoes any of your worst Christmas sweater stories, Congress this past August approved a very generous $32 million appropriation to the DHS for the acquisition of three new Predator drones, meant to bolster the Department’s border-monitoring efforts.
Department officials were surprised, to say the least. See, new Predators weren’t exactly on their surveillance gear wish list.
“We didn’t ask for them,” an unnamed official told the Los Angeles Times.
DHS is already struggling to operate their seven existing drones. Officials acknowledge that they are short on pilots and maintenance — right now, they can only pay to fly the drones five days a week. So now DHS is in a mad scramble trying to figure out how they can successfully incorporate three more vehicles into the roster.
That means more than just pilots: Each drone also requires a maintenance crew, intelligence analysts and pricey satellite bandwidth.
“That is year-by-year, hand-to-mouth living,” another unnamed official said of hard-knock times at the department, which has been forced to move money from other projects just to keep their surveillance initiative, which will eventually boast 18 to 24 drones monitoring U.S. borders and waterways for everything from illegal immigrants to drug runners, operational.
One of the drones is scheduled to be delivered to Corpus Christi, TX today. The other two will be dropped off in Arizona and Florida later this year.
The DHS might not be happy, but the drone endowment will no doubt have some parties squealing with delight: The appropriation was the result of ongoing lobbying from the so-called “Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Caucus,” a group of several dozen congressmen, many of whom hail from Southern California — a hot-bed of drone development and home to General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, the company that makes the Predator drone in question.
Already, General Atomics has scored $240 million from DHS’ Customs and Border Protection since 2005 for the manufacture of the unmanned aerial vehicles — and generously enough, they’ve handed $1.6 million of it over to the campaign funds of several Congressional members on the drone caucus.
“This is a symptom of how surveillance technology is spreading around the U.S.,” Jay Stanley, a senior privacy and technology analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union, said. “A lot of times it is not being pulled by people on the ground. It is being pushed from above by people who want to sell it.”
Speaking of selling, we here at Danger Room have one suggestion for how DHS make the most of their $32-million gift-gone-wrong: eBay.