The Mystery of US Customs' Crashed Drone

The CBP finally released docs about its San Diego crash, but they don't include what its Predator was doing.

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Apr 24 2014, 8:00pm
Image: Sandia National Labs

After three months of haggling, the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has finally released documents regarding the crash of one of its Predator drones in the ocean off San Diego in January of this year. Notably, CBP has redacted the precise mission its unmanned surveillance vehicle was conducting when its generator failed.

In 2004, CBP conducted its first pilot study on flying drones to monitor US borderlands and seas, beginning with the southwest border with Mexico. The agency expanded unmanned surveillance to the Canadian border in 2009, and today also flies along the Gulf Coast and in the Caribbean. As of May 2013, CBP had a total of ten MQ-9 Predator B drones: six along the southwest border, two along the northern border and two stationed in Cape Canaveral for Gulf and Caribbean missions.

Documents released to MuckRock as part of the Drone Census indicate that the Predator that crashed on January 28 off the San Diego coast was flown out of Sierra Vista, Arizona.   

                     

After ditching the drone in the ocean, CBP grounded its entire unmanned fleet until it could “determine the appropriate course of action to assess the operational readiness of the remaining systems in the UAS fleet.”

The CBP fought release of this basic order to ground the fleet, even a week after the fact and following numerous official statements about the crash. A CBP records officer claimed that any and all documents were immune from release as part of “law enforcement proceedings.” That logic did not hold up on appeal, and the orders were released.

But even in releasing the grounding orders, CBP maintained that it has broad discretion over withholding information about its drone program. This includes the name of the mission the drone was “participating in” when it malfunctioned.

The agency attempted to flex this discretion again in withholding the reinstatement orders which authorized CBP drone operators to resume once again a week after the crash. Again, CBP FOIA officers insisted that all documents were immune as law enforcement records

On appeal, clearer lawyerly heads prevailed, and the single-page memo was finally released in late March.

The memo indicates that an investigation is ongoing into the underlying cause of the generator heat failure. While there were “no smoking guns” as of February 4, similar mechanical issues have popped up an undisclosed number of times since April 2013 across the CBP fleet.

While the reinstatement orders were released, CBP again withheld the mission name. It continues to fight releasing further details about the cause and aftermath of the crash.

Such back-and-forth transparency squabbles remain the norm around domestic drone deployments:

The animus of the Drone Census is to push back on attempts to shroud drone policymaking and operations from public knowledge and scrutiny. CBP drones are back in the air, and we’re back to ferreting out details of how often they’re flown, where, and to what purposes.