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New Drone Radar Reveals Border Patrol ‘Gotaways’ in High Numbers

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Posted on Apr 11, 2013
Diablo Azul (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By Andrew Becker, Center for Investigative Reporting

(Page 2)

Specifically, the agency hadn’t accounted for apprehensions once the unmanned spy plane was no longer patrolling the area or ones made out of its view, he said.

As Congress once again takes up immigration reform, Obama administration officials and others have pointed to the lowest levels of unauthorized border crossers – as measured by Border Patrol apprehensions – and plummeting crime statistics on the U.S. side as proof that their methods are working.

Conservatives have long said that immigration reform cannot come before the border is secure. Immigration reform supporters, while acknowledging the political need for border security, say the flood of migrants is a symptom rather than a root cause of complex problems now being addressed by Congress.

Amid this debate, unauthorized border traffic has picked up in recent months in some parts of the country. In the Rio Grande Valley sector in South Texas, apprehensions jumped to 97,762 last year, an increase of 65 percent from the previous year, according to internal records.


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Some border experts speculate that more immigrants, particularly from Central America, are crossing in recent months because of excitement about an expected immigration law overhaul, federal budget cuts and the recent release of detained immigrants by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“The border is more secure than ever? Well, that’s a pretty low bar,” said Michael Nicley, who retired in 2007 as the Border Patrol’s sector chief in Tucson, Ariz. “Border Patrol agents would be the first to stick out their chests and say the border is under control. That’s not what they’re saying. Agents I talk to down here say we’re getting hammered.”

Another recent Border Patrol report offers more insights into what VADER detects and how that information passes from one shift of on-duty agents to the next. The March report highlights various sensor detections – from groups of fewer than 10 to more than 100 south of the border. One group of nearly 20 wore booties to disguise its tracks. More than eight hours after VADER spotted them, they were labeled outstanding and passed to the next shift.

Originally designed for war zone

Defense contractor Northrop Grumman, based in the Washington, D.C., area, developed VADER for the U.S. Army to counter roadside bombs and other improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan by detecting enemy combatants as they planted the weapons.

The program was launched in 2006 with sponsorship from the Pentagon’s research arm, known as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, to create and test a new radar system within two years. In total, Northrop Grumman has won about $188 million in related contracts, according to a review of contracting data by the Center for Investigative Reporting.

The Army announced in February that it was awarding a sole-source contract to Northrop Grumman for continued support of two VADER systems in Afghanistan and a third in the continental United States through the end of the year. Northrop Grumman referred questions to the U.S. Army, which said information about the domestic use of the system should come from the Department of Homeland Security.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, meanwhile, has been involved with the development and testing of the system for years.

In 2009, the system was deployed along a 31-mile portion of the Arizona border with Mexico over five days using a Customs and Border Protection unmanned aircraft, according to a 2011 National Research Council report. The demonstration was “a great success” as the system identified suspicious activities four out of five nights, the report states.

Mark Borkowski, a Customs and Border Protection official, testified before a 2011 House panel of lawmakers that the system demonstrated “significant potential” for helping the agency.

Legislators, in turn, have supported the technology with public statements and budget earmarks totaling millions of dollars. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., who leads a House subcommittee on border and maritime security, said in a June hearing that she was “very encouraged” by VADER.

“This tool is extremely valuable as CBP seeks to identify and detect changing smuggling patterns,” she said.

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