DOJ Inspector General: ATF, FBI’s Drones Worthless, Expensive And Completely Mismanaged

The DOJ’s most infamous drone deployments involve justifications for extrajudicial killings. But its agencies also have fleets of (nonlethal) drones, something these agencies tend to avoid discussing until sued into doing so.

The Office of the Inspector General has taken another look at the drones deployed by DOJ agencies and found that, while plenty of money has been spent acquiring and maintaining drones/operators, very little deployment is actually occurring.

Our September 2013 interim report found that between 2004 and 2013, the FBI spent approximately $3 million to acquire small UAS it deployed to support its investigations. As of August 2014, the FBI had acquired 34 UAS vehicles and associated control stations, of which it considered 17 vehicles and a smaller number of control stations to be operational.

$3 million spent on drones, with only half currently considered “operational.” In eight years (2006-2014), the drones have only been deployed to assist in 13 investigations, with nine of those occurring in the last four years. This may be good news for those concerned about extensive domestic surveillance, but it’s not good news for those interested in how their tax dollars are being spent.

The FBI may have the desire for more unchecked surveillance and the drones needed to do the job, but it apparently lacks the manpower…

During the time of our review, the FBI maintained its UAS at one location in the United States and had only one team composed of two pilots on staff who were adequately trained to operate its UAS.

…or Fourth Amendment concerns…

The FBI told us that that it determined it did not need to obtain search warrants for any of its UAS operations.

That’s the nice thing about making your own in-house “determinations”: they’ll rarely be challenged.

As for the half-functional 34-drone fleet “manned” by the FBI’s two pilots, it couldn’t be more unlike the agency’s earlier assertions.

This approach differs from the decentralized deployment approach that FBI officials told us they employ for the FBI’s manned aircraft.

If you’re wondering where more of your tax dollars are being misspent, it’s right there in the following paragraphs. Because the FBI has only two drone pilots, these operators are driven or flown to locations where the drones are needed, sometimes arriving more than a day after the request for assistance was made. The FBI, despite being a national law enforcement agency, houses both its pilots and its drones at the same location.

Considering the FBI claims the drones have been used in potentially life-threatening situations (search-and-rescue efforts, suspected kidnappings), spending a day shipping drones and pilots where needed seems like the sort of thing that would result in unnecessary deaths/injuries. In response, the OIG has asked the FBI to handle its drone fleet less stupidly.

The ATF also has a few drones of its own. (The US Marshals Service and DEA were queried by the OIG, but both claimed to have no drones in their possession, which is true, but misleading. [More on that below.]) And, like the FBI, the drones are expensive, underutilized and, far too often, not worth the money that’s been spent on them.

One UAS program manager told us ATF found that one of its smaller UAS models, which cost nearly $90,000, was too difficult to use reliably in operations. Furthermore, the TOB discovered that a gas-powered UAS model, which cost approximately $315,000 and was specified to fly for up to 2 hours, was never operable due to multiple technical defects.

The lack of functioning flying eyeballs resulted in the Special Operations Division shutting down the ATF’s drone fleet in June 2014. Those drones were transferred to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service “at no cost” — a fair price for non-functioning drones. With its drones and drone program dead, the ATF did the logical thing: bought more drones.

Less than a week after ATF’s Special Operations Division suspended its UAS program, ATF’s National Response Team (NRT) purchased five small, commercially available UAS at a total cost of about $15,000.

These new drones were deployed exactly once. At that point, the ATF determined it would need to permission from the FAA before deploying its drones in the future. With that, the ATF’s drone program returned to its briefly interrupted hibernation.

For those agencies claiming they have no drones (US Marshals Service, DEA), that’s only true if limited to direct ownership. Every major DOJ agency has availed itself to the DHS’s fleet of drones, a majority of which belong to the CBP.

Specifically, four DOJ law enforcement components – the FBI, ATF, DEA, and USMS – have received UAS support from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which operates a fleet of Predator-B UAS. In response to our request, the CBP provided to us evidence indicating it operated UAS at least 95 times on missions that involved DOJ components in some way. Of these flights, the CBP identified that DEA was involved in 73, the FBI in 13, ATF in 4, the USMS in 3, and 2 for multiple DOJ components.

So, when the DEA says it has no drones, it’s technically correct. But the drones it doesn’t own have flown more times than the 34 drones the FBI actually owns. The CBP’s drone fleet seems to have enough drones for everyone, and this division of labor (so to speak) allows the DEA and other DOJ agencies to minimize their drone paper trails. But more drones doesn’t mean useful drones. The CBP’s drone fleet may perform well in other agencies’ hands, but it’s next to useless when deployed by Customs itself.

While the investigation generally points to limited drone usage — which is a good thing — the discovery that the DOJ’s drone fleets are expensive, mismanaged and almost completely worthless isn’t.

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