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McCain bill would require oversight over border drones

Following the release of a highly critical audit of the Department of Homeland Security’s border drone program, Arizona's senators introduced new legislation Tuesday aimed at reforming the use of unarmed Predators along U.S. borders.

Introduced by U.S. Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, along with Sen. Kelly Ayotte from New Hampshire, the "Unmanned Aircraft System Improvement Act of 2015" would block the Department of Homeland Security from buying any new drones until the agency submits a report to Congress certifying that it has “successfully operated its current fleet.”

A government report quietly released last month found that border drones have only been flown 20 percent of the predicted time, and that the cost of the program has been greater than anticipated. TucsonSentinel.com reported on the audit a week ago.

“Unmanned Aircraft Systems, when properly utilized, are critical in our fight to effectively secure the border,” said McCain in a press release. “The findings released in the Inspector General Report highlight exactly where reform is needed, and this bill is an important step to ensuring our border security efforts are effective in preventing future waves of illegal border crossings.”

The bill would require the Homeland Security Secretary to submit an annual report to Congress for the next five years.

In the report would be the total number of hours required to provide persistent surveillance along the Southern border, as well as the total number of hours planned in support of other federal and local agencies.

Moreover, the bill requires DHS to consult with the Department of Defense on best practices for wide-area surveillance using drones. Until that happens, the agency would be limited to nine Predator drones currently flown along U.S. borders and coasts, including four based at an airfield at Ft. Huachuca near Sierra Vista, Ariz.

Until January 2014, the agency operated 10 drones from airfields around the United States, but the agency lost one in the ocean near San Diego after a mechanical failure.

Until the agency satisfies Congress, it would be limited to the current fleet, however, the bill does create an exemption for drones under 150 pounds.

On Christmas Eve, the DHS’s Office of Inspector General released a 34-page report that was highly-critical of the agency’s drone program, finding that after eight years, the program had not achieved results and the drones were aloft for only about 20 percent of the time expected.

However, officials with Customs and Border Protection disputed the audit's finding.

In a letter written to the inspector general, Eugene H. Schied wrote that "CBP has achieved or exceeded all relevant performance expectations."

"There have been countless successful CBP missions over the years in which UAS capabilities and resulting products have contributed significantly to the successful investigation, dismantling, and disrupting of criminal enterprises and organizations," Schied wrote.

He also noted that the agency's Predators had been used to collect information for federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.

Schied also disputed the OIG's finding that the agency was planning to expand the Predator program.

While the agency has the authority to purchase up to 14 more drones for $433 million, CBP spokesman Carlos Lazo said that agency is only looking to replace the lost drone.

Just last year, the Senate wanted to expand the drone program.

Attached to last year's failed immigration legislation from the Senate was a requirement that the agency add four more Predators to the southwest border, along with six additional radar systems for the aircraft designed to detect vehicles and people moving through the desert.

Other congressional bills aimed at reforming Border Patrol practices have largely failed.

For example, in March 2014, Rep. Beto O’Rourke of El Paso submitted the “Border Enforcement Accountability, Oversight, and Community Engagement Act of 2014."

The bill would have created an oversight commission responsible for reviewing DHS policy, especially in regard to complaints about the treatment of people in DHS custody and the use of force by Border Patrol agents and Customs and Border Protection officers.

However, the bill stalled in a House subcommittee.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

A Predator drone operated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Office of Air and Marine from an airfield at Ft. Huachuca near Sierra Vista.