Homeland Security Taps Generals to Run Domestic Drone Program: The Rise of Predators at Home

DHS decided – with virtually no reviews or evaluations – to purchase unarmed versions of the Predator drones used abroad for “signature strikes” (targeted drone killing). The department, whose mission includes “border security,” has also relied on military bases along the land border and coastal waters to host its own drone fleet.Since DHS began acquiring Predators, along with Predator variants called Guardians, from General Atomics nine years ago, this domestic drone program has proved an abysmal failure – whether measured by its effectiveness in immigration enforcement, drug control, or counterterrorism.  A series of reports by the General Accountability Office, Congressional Review Service, and the DHS Inspector General’s Office have documented the paltry achievements, the alarming strategic confusion, and near-systemic logistical and technical shortcomings of the DHS drone program.

These government reports pointed to the complete absence of any cost-benefit evaluations and efficiency assessments of the DHS drone program.

Yet these official reviews failed to shed any light on the department’s controversial decision to deploy only the hugely expensive military-grade Predator drones and to enter into sole-source contracts with General Atomics to provide, maintain, and even operate the federal government’s domestic drone fleet.

Nor did they probe the decision by DHS to hire military men to run the domestic drone program, despite their total lack of experience in law enforcement, border control, drug control, and immigration enforcement. Instead, from the start, DHS brought in generals with a history of procurement and management of the military’s killer drones to hunt down immigrants and illegal drugs with Predator drones.

The continuing rise of Predator drones at home has been fueled by the bizarre merger of military influence in domestic affairs and by the key role of border hawks in the politics of immigration reform. The decision early on by DHS to tap generals involved in the military’s own controversial overseas drone program to shape and direct the domestic drone program points to the increasing merger of the post-9/11 homeland security/border security complex with the military-industrial complex.

Drones in Immigration Reform’s Proposed “Border Surge”

Congressional proponents of immigration reform have included repeated references to their commitment to provide dramatically increased aerial surveillance of the southwestern border by Department of Homeland Security drones.

Prominent immigration reform advocates such as Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Cong. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) insist that “continuous” and “24 hours, seven days a week” drone surveillance is a fundamental condition of successful immigration reform. Yet these and other border drone advocates don’t point to the achievements of the current DHS program. Rather, like Cuellar, they point to the purported success of the US military’s antiterrorist drone program.

The DHS drone program is run by the Office of Air and Marine (OAM), a division of the Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which also includes the Office of the US Border Patrol.

Prior to 9/11 and DHS’s creation, the Border Patrol and the US Customs Service (the legacy agency that became ICE), the various Border Patrol and US Customs sector offices mainly tapped their planes and boats to do what these agencies have traditionally done, namely apprehended unauthorized immigrants and seize illegal drugs. Under OAM, the actual operations remain largely the same, although now framed in a new security, counterterrorism context. According to CBP, the mission of OAM is “to detect, interdict, and prevent acts of terrorism and the unlawful movement of people, illegal drugs and other contraband towards or across the borders of the United States.”

OAM boasts that it “is the most experienced operator of Unmanned Aircraft Systems in the Homeland Security mission set on the world stage.”

Homeland Security and Border Security Merge with Military-Industrial Complex 

In recent years, major military contractors have dominated DHS’ top 25 contractors. In 2011, for example, the leading DHS contractors included (in descending order) Raytheon (ranking No. 1), Northrup Grumman, Lockheed Martin, SAIC, European Aeronautical Defense and Space Company, SAFRAN, L-3 Communications, Booz Allen Hamilton, General Dynamics, and Defense Support Services.

Other large military contractors among the top 25 DHS contractors include International Business Machine, Bollinger Shipyards, and Huntington Ingalls, as well as several Native Alaskan Corporations that serve as fronts for military contractors, including Kodiak Support Services, Chenega Corporation, and Arctic Slope Regional Corporation.

Since DHS began operations in 2003, Boeing – notorious in the border security context for being the prime contractor of the mightily flawed “virtual fence” – has been the single largest DHS contractor, with more than 800 DHS contracts amounting to a cumulative $86.4 billion in homeland security contracts. Boeing follows Lockheed Martin as the top DOD contractor.

Money is what fuels the military-industrial complex. Yet in probing DHS’s close relationship with General Atomics and the department’s persisting commitment to aerial surveillance by military-grade drones, more than dollars are at work.

CBP’s successive choices of two retired major generals to direct OAM point to DHS determination to reorient traditional border control operations into a strategic military framework.

What is more, the choice in 2005 of retired Air Force Major General Michael Kostelnik to direct the newly created Office of Air and Marine, followed by the choice of retired Marine Major General Randolph Alles to succeed Kostelnik in January 2013 signaled the CBP’s conviction that UAVs should play a central role in continuing the post-9/11 missions of “homeland security” and “border security.”

Toward the end of their military careers, both Kostelnik and Alles played critical roles in drone development and contracting for the Air Force and the Marines.

The Predator is Born and Bred

Looking back at the Air Force’s close relationship with General Atomics Aeronautical Systems sheds light on why the company received its first orders for nonweaponized drones from CBP. It may also help explain why CBP conceived its drone program as part of a military-like strategy to secure the border using the much-vaunted ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) capabilities of Predator drones.

Missing from the official narrative about sole-source, no-bid contracts for its Predator drones is an accounting of the personal and institutional relations that have shaped the DHS program. The back-story of DHS drones is fascinating. It is also instructive, and helps explain why CBP was willing to waste hundreds of millions of dollars on drone operations that have proved spectacularly unsuccessful – whether measured either by number of terrorists caught (none) or by the relatively insignificant number of immigrants apprehended and pounds of illegal drugs seized, or by the logistical, technical, and management failures highlighted in the GAO and Inspector General reports.

The Predator drone deployed by CBP to meet its post-9/11 “homeland security” and “border security” missions is a product of the military-industrial complex. General Atomics, a southern California military contractor, developed the Predator as part of a 1993 Pentagon initiative called the Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration program.

Kostelnik started following the development of the Predator in the mid-1990s in his positions as director of special programs in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Technology and as executive secretary to DOD’s Special Access Program Oversight Committee.

In the late 1990s, during the onset and killing of the Balkan Wars, Kostelnik, who had become commander of the Air Armament Center at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. As Air Armament Center commander, Kostelnik was a central figure in the General Atomics/Air Force project to “weaponize the Predator.”

In 1995, Kostelnik watched a video streamed by General Atomics to the Pentagon from a test exercise of the Predator at Fort Huachuca, Arizona – where four CBP Predators are currently based. Soon afterward, Kostelnik visited the General Atomics development facility in southern California, where he met with the company’s president, retired Rear Adm. Thomas J. Cassidy, and personally observed a Predator test flight.

Fixated on developing UAVs as weapons, Kostelnik later called Cassidy, according to the Air Force history of the Predator‘s development:

“I’ve got an idea about using your aircraft,” Kostelnik told Cassidy. “I think it can carry a small bomb. What do you think?”

“You’ll hardly believe your good fortune,” replied Cassidy, “We’ve already been working on it.”

The Air Force deepened its interest in weaponizing the Predator following an Air Armament Summit that Kostelnik helped organize. The March 2000 summit, which included a presentation by Kostelnik’s deputy commander, Brig. Gen. Kevin J. Sullivan, brought together company presidents, directors of research, and other division chiefs to discuss the Air Force’s armament plans.

Warfighting Commander Takes Control of CBP Drone Program

For eight years Major General Kostelnik was the face and voice of the DHS drone program. Having retired at year’s end in 2012, Kostelnik passed the directorship of the program to Major General Randoph Alles.

The January 2013 appointment of Randolph Alles to replace Kostelnik underscored DHS’ commitment to manage its border control mission within a military framework of national security.

Alles is a relatively unknown figure within CBP. He joined the agency in March 2012 as second-in-command to Assistant Commissioner Kostelnik, serving as deputy assistant commissioner at OAM.

Alles finished his 35-year career in 2011, serving concurrently as commander general of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory and vice chief of naval research. In his capacity as commander of the Warfighting Lab, Alles was the point person for the Marine Corps in the inter-military squabble to secure UAV development budgets and war-fighting commands.

The spat that pitted the Air Force against the other armed branches highlighted the Pentagon’s mad rush into the age of drone surveillance and warfare. The intensity of the rivalry and the duplication of drone development and acquisitions – which preceded 9/11, but intensified in the following years – underscored the extent to which the Pentagon and the military are too often driven more by competition over funding and weapons systems than by their national security mission.

The extent to which this inter-military squabble over the drone budget – one of the few parts of the DOD budget that was increasing, and moreover, rising rapidly – influenced the DHS decision to expand into drone surveillance and to enter into sole-source contracts with General Atomics can at this time only be speculated.

However, in assessing the focus, performance, and operational prioritization of CBB/OAM and the DHS border security mission, it is helpful to review the background of the OAM chiefs, especially given their prominent roles in drone warfare and drone development and acquisitions.

With respect to Alles, it is instructive to recall his testimony before the House Armed Services committee in 2007, in which he advocated for separate and even duplicative UAV development and deployment strategies for the various military branches.

As commander of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, Alles directed Marine planning to “improve expeditionary warfare capabilities across the spectrum of conflict.” In his role as Warfighting Laboratory chief, Alles was in charge of the corps’ development and acquisition of “various aspects of advanced technologies.”

In his prepared statement, Alles defended the decision by the Marine Corps to proceed with his own drone development and operational program and objected to the Air Force proposal that it be the “executive agent” for military UAVs.  “The Marine Corps opposes the idea that any one service should control the procurement or employment of these valuable assets,” said Alles, addressing the Air Force contention that the Army and Marine Corps shouldn’t be contracting for research, development, and procurement that the Air Force had already initiated in the mid-1990s with the Predator project of General Atomics.

Arguing that “efficiency does not imply effectiveness,” Alles told committee members that the Marine Corps needed three tiers of UAVs in varying sizes to be effective at all levels of combat, even though these UAVs may nearly duplicate drones being acquired and deployed by other military branches, particularly the Air Force.

The most prominent example of duplication and questionable effectiveness was the production by General Atomics of nearly identical UAVs for the Air Force, DHS, and the US Army.  At the same time, the Air Force and DHS contracted General Atomics to develop and manufacture armed and unarmed UAVs called Predators, the US Army had contracted General Atomics to develop and produce Sky Warrior UAVs.

The differences between the Predators and Sky Warriors (later renamed Grey Eagles by the Pentagon) are akin to the differences between different models and grades of the Toyota Sienna – featuring the same basic design structure, but differentiated by motor size and the number of Hellfire missiles as part of its “payload.”

This proposed border surge, including the plan to more than double the DHS Predator/Guardian fleet will prove a boon to General Atomics and other military contractors that constitute the core of the military-industrial complex. In doing so, the ever expanding post-9/11 homeland security/border security industrial complex will increasingly merge with the post-World War II military-industrial complex.

Yet the proposed border surge in high-tech spending isn’t responding to demonstrable security threats or remotely associated with the counterterrorism mission of the Department of Homeland Security. Instead, the border and the entire “homeland” will be subject to more drone surveillance as a product of the strange bipartisan politics of immigration reform.

With Predator drones flying overhead and an array of new high-tech ground surveillance systems, the “border surge” also constitutes the frontline of the expanding surveillance state at home.

Full article: Homeland Security Taps Generals to Run Domestic Drone Program: The Rise of Predators at Home (Truth-Out)

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