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The Drone Makers And Their Friends In Washington

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You’ve probably heard of the Congressional Black Caucus, or perhaps the Progressive Caucus. But what about the drone caucus? Officially, it’s the Unmanned Systems Caucus.

Primarily, the caucus advocates for drones — those pilot-less planes infamous for their role targeting insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They’re used as a spy tool in Iran, a drug-fighting tool in Mexico and an anti-smuggling tool along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Many of the most successful drone manufacturers are based in Southern California and elsewhere around the southwest.

The drone caucus — like the technology it promotes — is becoming increasingly important in the nation’s capitol as the government looks to unmanned vehicles to help save money on defense, better patrol the country’s borders and provide a new tool to U.S. law enforcement agencies and civilians.

“It’s definitely a powerful caucus,” said Alex Bronstein-Moffly, an analyst with First Street Research Group, a D.C.-based company that analyzes lobbying data.

“It’s probably up there in the more powerful caucuses that sort of is not talked about.” And, he says, caucus members are well placed to influence government spending and regulations.

“You have members that are tapped into sort of key places," he said. “You also have members who have been around for a long time."

The caucus is co-chaired by 10-term Congressman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, a Republican from Southern California who also chairs the House Armed Services Committee. He shares the drone caucus chair with Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar of Texas.

The caucus includes eight members who also sit on the House Committee on Appropriations, which largely controls the government’s purse strings.

Many of the drone caucus members are well supported by the industry they endorse. According to Bronstein-Moffly’s data, the 58 drone caucus members received a total of $2.3 million in contributions from political action committees affiliated with drone manufacturers since 2011.

Twenty-one members of the drone caucus are from border states. These members collected around $1 million in campaign contributions from top drone manufacturers during the 2010 and 2012 election cycles, according to campaign finance data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics and analyzed by Fronteras Desk and Investigative Newsource.

Some of those companies are among the biggest contributors to drone caucus members. The political action committee of San Diego-based General Atomics is among the top three all-time campaign contributors to California Congressmen Brian Bilbray, Ken Calvert, Jerry Lewis and McKeon.

General Atomics is the company that supplies and maintains the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol’s ten Predator drones.

In the last two election cycles, General Atomics’ PAC has given more than $140,000 to drone caucus members in border states, according to our analysis.

A PAC affiliated with Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman, the defense firm that makes the Global Hawk drone, gave close to $150,000 to 16 drone caucus members representing districts in California, Texas, Arizona and Nevada. (A Global Hawk drone owned by the U.S. Navy crashed in June in southern Maryland.)

Campaign donations could increase between now and the November elections.

Most of these contributions, along with lobbying dollars spent advocating for drones, come from big, established players in the defense industry, like Northrop Grumman. But some smaller drone makers, and even universities and cities, are spending money in the Capitol to lobby on drone-related legislation and regulations.

Southern California-based AeroVironment, which supplies the U.S. military with most of its small drones, has spent more on lobbying each year from 2007 to 2011 than during the previous five years combined, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.

New Mexico State University has lobbied on several drone-related issues, including “nuclear detection utilizing unmanned aerial vehicles,” according to lobbying disclosure forms. It’s also lobbied on the establishment of new unmanned aerial test sites to be established in the U.S., according to Bronstein-Moffly.

The FAA will select six sites around the country to test how to safely fly drones alongside manned airplanes in U.S. airspace. The university already tests drones for the government at its Las Cruces site.

For its part, the drone caucus helps convince the government that unmanned vehicles are a smart investment. The Obama administration has said drones, and other advanced technology, are key to creating a cheaper, more effective military, with fewer troops on the ground.

In February, President Barack Obama signed a law making it possible for police and fire departments to operate surveillance drones over U.S. skies. Under the same law, the likes of real estate agents and news organizations will soon be able to fly their own drones.

As the Federal Aviation Administration drafts the rules for domestic drone use, members of the drone caucus can throw around some weight.

“They can hold hearings, generate publicity and put public pressure on the FAA,” Bronstein-Moffly said.

But where they really hold sway is in appropriations.

Since 2005, the federal government has awarded at least $12 billion in contracts for drones and drone supplies and maintenance. That includes at least $270 million for U.S. Customs and Border Protection's drone program.

Of course, not everyone is excited about the rise of drones. In the U.S., there are privacy concerns. With their use abroad, there are moral ones.

Speaking in February at a conference sponsored by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International — the main drone industry group — Congressman McKeon was interrupted by anti-war activist Medea Benjamin. Conference organizers promptly cut the sound system.

Benjamin was escorted outside, where she joined a group of protesters denouncing the killing of suspected foreign insurgents by U.S. military drones, and the use of taxpayer money to fund drones to patrol the U.S. border.

“This is another example of a big business trying to create a niche for itself,” Benjamin said. The activist published a book earlier this year called "Drone Warfare."

“It’s overspending the taxpayer’s dollars and I think we’re going to see everybody, the border patrol, the police department, everybody wants to get in on these fancy toys,” she said.

Even among the industry’s biggest customers, like the CBP, there are now some questions being raised.

A report from the agency’s Inspector General released in late May found its drone program was poorly organized and wasn’t completing its mission.

Speaking at the same industry conference earlier this year, CBP official Mark Borkowski indicated the agency would be cautious when considering purchases of new technology.

"We're interested in new technology but we have a baseline problem first," said Borkowski, who’s the Assistant Commissioner for CBP’s Office of Technology Innovation and Acquisition.

He said the agency needs to do testing to evaluate costs and benefits before it buys new gadgets.

Still, drone makers are looking toward a profitable future. The Teal Group, an aerospace and defense consulting firm, expects the worldwide drone market to almost double over the next decade.

Ryann Grochowski from the Investigative Newsource and reporter Sam Greenspan contributed to this story.

Jill Replogle is a Fronteras reporter in San Diego. She has been a journalist for more than 10 years, reporting from Central America, Mexico and California.
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