A new report prepared by the United States Department of Justice’s internal watchdog has revealed that two major federal law enforcement agencies have spent millions of dollars on 23 drones that for some reason, are not operational.
The report, which was published on Wednesday by the DOJ’s Office of the Inspector General, also concludes that the FBI is the “only DOJ component that operationally deploys its own UAS,” using the government acronym for Unmanned Aerial System, or drone.
The DOJ OIG report comes less than three months after the Department of Homeland Security OIG concluded that after eight years, the drone program run by Customs and Border Protection was ineffective.
The DOJ report also includes a few other new details, including confirmation of the 2013 assertion by then-FBI Director Robert Mueller that the agency uses drones “very seldom.” The DOJ OIG found that the FBI has only used its drones for 13 cases between 2004 and 2013. When it did fly those missions, however, the agency also determined that it apparently did not need a warrant to conduct aerial surveillance.
As was first noted by Emptywheel, a government and national security blog, the DOJ OIG report also states that the FBI spent $3 million on 34 drones “and associated control stations.” But for some reason, only half of those drones are considered operational, suggesting that half of the money has effectively been wasted.
Another problem is that the FBI apparently only has two drone pilots at the moment, who have to be physically shuttled around the country when a drone operation is in use.
Worse still, it has been hard to train more, as the report states:
Additionally, [FBI Surveillance and Aviation Section] officials told us that they began training four additional UAS pilots in November 2014. We note, however, that FBI officials also told us that there have been times in the past where they have had multiple UAS pilots trained, but these pilots transferred, retired, or otherwise did not keep current on training.
The second largest agency within the DOJ to use drones was the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which spent a total of $600,000 on six drones and related equipment, but they too were “unsuitable" for unspecified reasons.
As the DOJ OIG notes:
ATF officials reported that ATF never flew its UAS in support its operations because [Technical Operations Branch] testing and pilot training revealed a series of technological limitations with the UAS models it had acquired. In particular, ATF determined the real-time battery capability for one UAS model lasted for only about 20 minutes even though the manufacturer specified its flight time was 45 minutes. ATF determined that the other two models of UAS acquired also were unreliable or unsuitable for surveillance. 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.
In June 2014, the Special Operations Division concluded that ATF’s UAS were unsuitable for operational use, suspended all ATF UAS-related activities, and reassigned all UAS staff until after DOJ issues and ATF reviews new UAS policy recommendations. In September 2014, the TOB transferred its six UAS vehicles and other related equipment purchased prior to June 2014 to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service at no cost.
Apparently just a week after the ATF gave up its six drones, it then went out and bought five more for $15,000. Then after realizing it needed a Certificate of Authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration in order to fly them, they were grounded.