During their significant coverage of his stand against the Obama administration's drone policy, the media have failed to examine Republican Sen. Rand Paul's support for surveillance drones in border states. Now that Paul has come out in favor of comprehensive immigration reform, media outlets have an opportunity to highlight this dichotomy -- especially in light of the fact that his immigration framework requires that drones be used to target immigrants.
In a February 11 Washington Times op-ed announcing his support for immigration reform, Paul wrote:
As a matter of both national security and immigration policy, though, it is absolutely essential that we both secure our border and modernize our visa system so we know who comes and who goes on travel, student and other temporary visas. It is vital all other reforms be conditioned on this goal being met.
Border security, including drones, satellite and physical barriers, vigilant deportation of criminals and increased patrols would begin immediately and would be assessed at the end of one year by an investigator general from the Government Accountability Office.
During an interview on Sean Hannity's radio show, Paul similarly stated that border enforcement should include "a combination of a lot of things," such as satellite imagery and drones. He then went on to dismiss his earlier stance against drones, adding that "for border security, you can use drones for surveillance. That's protecting our country." Hannity did not question Paul over the disconnect between these positions.
Similarly, media have largely ignored Paul's comments calling for drones to target immigrants, even though his stance is not new.
In fact, in June 2012, Paul introduced a bill "that protects individual privacy against unwarranted governmental intrusion through the use of the unmanned aerial vehicles commonly known as drones." But the bill included a number of exceptions, one of which was the use of drones to patrol national borders.
On March 6, Paul staged a 13-hour filibuster against the nomination of John Brennan for CIA director, fueled by his opposition to the administration's targeted drone killings and to ensure that "no American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found to be guilty by a court."
Media outlets covered the event extensively and continue to reference it. According to a Nexis search, from March 6 to March 20, more than 200 articles have been written mentioning Paul's filibuster. However, none of those articles discussed Paul's support for drones as part of border enforcement.
Government reports have found mixed results when determining whether drones are effective at stemming the flow of illegal immigration or curbing drug-related crimes. As the Los Angeles Times reported, a May 2012 audit by the Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General found that the "nine Predators that help police America's borders have yet to prove very useful in stopping contraband or illegal immigrants."
A December 2011 Washington Post article also reported:
The Predators reached a milestone in June, having flown 10,000 hours. The Homeland Security Department reported that their drone operations have led to the apprehension of 4,865 undocumented immigrants and 238 drug smugglers since the program began.
Those numbers are not very impressive. A total of 327,577 illegal migrants were caught at the southwestern border in fiscal 2011, meaning the drones have contributed only to a fraction of arrests.
With an hour of flight time costing $3,600, it costs about $7,054 for each illegal immigrant or smuggler caught, based on numbers calculated from a recent Government Accountability Office report to Congress. The government has spent $240 million buying and maintaining its domestic drones, not including their operation.
A September 2012 Government Accountability Office report concluded that "additional work is needed to overcome many of the obstacles to the safe integration of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) that GAO identified in 2008." GAO further reported:
GAO reported in 2008 that UAS could not meet the aviation safety requirements developed for manned aircraft and that this posed several obstacles to safe and routine operation in the national airspace system. These obstacles still exist and include the inability for UAS to sense and avoid other aircraft and airborne objects in a manner similar to manned aircraft; vulnerabilities in the command and control of UAS operations; the lack of technological and operational standards needed to guide safe and consistent performance of UAS; and final regulations to accelerate the safe integration of UAS into the national airspace system.
Civil rights groups like the ACLU have warned about potential privacy violations. Now that the Border Patrol is considering adding eavesdropping technology to its fleet of Predator drones, privacy concerns are very real, which has prompted several anti-drone bills by local and state officials nationwide.