WASHINGTON - The Homeland Security
Department is considering the use of unmanned aircraft to track drug
smugglers, illegal immigrants and terrorists along the porous U.S.
border with Mexico, a top official told a Senate panel Tuesday.
"There's a lot of interest in this," Robert Bonner, commissioner
of the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, told the homeland
security subcommittee. "I think there's potential there."
With no human on board, Predators and other remote-controlled
aircraft can watch over a potential target for 24 hours or more and
fly for hundreds of miles. They can carry cameras, sensors,
communications equipment or missiles.
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge endorsed the use of drones
last month before members of the Senate Commerce, Science and
"We need to equip (Border Patrol agents) with this kind of
technology if our expectations legitimately are for them to combat
terrorism," Ridge said.
Support is growing for unmanned aircraft since their success
during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Spy cameras aboard a drone allowed U.S. commanders to watch the
capture of Palestinian hijacking suspect Abul Abbas and oversee the
rescue of Army prisoner-of-war Pfc. Jessica Lynch. On another day,
they foiled an Iraqi ambush on U.S. and British troops. In November,
an unmanned Predator drone killed suspected al-Qaida operatives in
The Senate Armed Services Committee last week approved a big jump
in the 2004 defense budget for unmanned systems, including
land-based and underwater systems. The committee approved $135
million more than the White House proposed, which was 25 percent
higher than last year's appropriation.
Armed Services Committee chairman John Warner, R-Va., wrote a
letter to President Bush on April 9 saying that unmanned aircraft
could monitor long stretches of border, nuclear power plants,
pipelines and dams. They could also be used to augment Coast Guard
patrols of the U.S. coastline.
"I believe that the potential applications for this technology in
the area of homeland defense are quite compelling," wrote
Jay Stanley, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union,
cautioned that aerial surveillance is limited now by the cost and
difficulty of flying a plane over a target. The use of drones could
significantly expand the amount of surveillance on Americans, he
"It definitely evokes the most paranoid visions of Big Brother's
eye in the sky," Stanley said.
William Shumann, Federal Aviation Administration spokesman, said
drones flying along the border wouldn't interfere with commercial
flights if they flew low enough. He said interest in the aircraft is
growing for civilian use as well as among law enforcement and the
Separately, congressional investigators told a House Judiciary
subcommittee on Tuesday that they were able to easily get inside
America's borders with falsified driver's licenses and birth
certificates made with off-the-shelf software and home
The false documents were not challenged once by border officials
when they tried to get in from Mexico, Jamaica, Barbados or Canada,
said Robert Cramer, the director of special investigations for the
General Accounting Office. Sometimes, he said, the agents were not
even asked for identification.
"The results of our work indicate that Bureau of Customs and
Border Protection inspectors are not readily capable of detecting
counterfeit identification documents and that people who enter the
United States are not always asked to present identification,"
Cramer said. "This does provide an opportunity for individuals to
enter the country illegally."
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Department of Homeland Security: http://www.dhs.gov/