Border drones will not be armed with "non-lethal" devices, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said Wednesday, a day after a report came out showing that the devices had been considered.
The nonprofit watchdog group Electronic Frontier Foundation used a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to obtain CBP documents in which outfitting the drones was included.
"CBP needs to assure the public that it will not equip its Predators with any weapons - lethal or otherwise," the foundation wrote in a blog post. "Without first addressing these issues, the agency - and Congress - should halt the expansion of CBP's Predator drone program."
The San Francisco-based foundation sued CBP to get a 2010 "Concept of Operations" report about the Predator program, three years of flight logs and other records.
In the report, CBP officials say "additional payload upgrades could include expendables or non-lethal weapons designed to immobilize" targets of interest."
CBP said in a written statement Wednesday that it has no plans to arm the unmanned aircraft systems "with non-lethal weapons or weapons of any kind."
The agency operates 10 drones, four of which are based in Arizona. The original plan called for purchasing 24, but Randolph Alles, assistant commander of the Office of Air and Marine, which supervises the drones, said recently he didn't have money to buy more and even if he did, he doesn't have enough money to operate them all.
The agency spends $32 million to $34 million a year to operate and maintain the 10 aircraft. That includes expenses related to ground-control stations, repairs, satellite communication and engineering support. The total cost of the program has been estimated at several hundred million dollars.
The Senate's comprehensive immigration reform bill now in the House calls for adding four unmanned aircraft to secure the border.
The flight logs also show CBP has increased the number of missions the drones have flown on behalf of other entities from 30 times in 2010 to more than 250 times in 2012.
CBP officials had said "on rare occasions, (drones) are deployed in support of local law enforcement to disaster sites to provide emergency assistance and to assist in locating persons and assessing damage."
About 95 percent of the aircraft's missions are border-related, Alles says, but they have been used during natural disasters such as flooding in the North Dakota area and hurricanes "to see what the situation on the ground looks like."
The foundation learned the unmanned aircraft have also been used to conduct surveillance for law-enforcement agencies including the FBI, the U.S. Marshals and the Texas Department of Public Safety. The missions, according to the group's blog, ranged from specific drug-related investigations to searches of missing persons and fishing violations.
The use of drones has also brought out privacy concerns.
While the goal of some missions may be to gather useful environmental information, "the drones necessarily also collect information on the people living within those areas - and we've seen no policies describing limitations on how the information is used or whether it's shared with law-enforcement agencies like the FBI or ICE," the foundation wrote on its website.
CBP has said the imagery captured by the agency's aircraft, manned or drones, is stored and protected with "the standard controls in place for law-enforcement-sensitive information, and access is restricted to approved CBP personnel with an official need to know in a law-enforcement capacity."
Existing statutes and regulations are designed to protect civil rights and liberties, CBP officials said.
The most commonly used drone, the Predator B, can fly about 20 hours without having to refuel, compared with a helicopter's average flight time of just over two hours. With new technology, Alles said the agency is getting more use out of the aircraft than before.
To read the documents obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation visit: www.eff.org
Contact reporter Perla Trevizo at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 573-4213. On Twitter: @Perla_Trevizo