Behind The Drone Series
July 18, 2012

Photo by Hernán Rozemberg
This is one of 10 Predator B drones that DHS uses to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border. It is based in Corpus Christi, Texas.

SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- So, we just bombarded you with a ton of coverage on the relatively recent use of military-style drones. The government does not like and does not use this term, by the way, opting for the more tech-sounding Unmanned Aerial Systems, or UAS.

Why did we do this?

Why four stories?

Why not just one and be done with it, move on to the next one?

Well, actually, it was going to be just one story. I had put in a request with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), particularly with its Office of Air and Marine within the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency, to check out the drone operation in South Texas. It's located at the Naval Air Base in Corpus Christi, on the Texas Gulf Coast.

I had actually first submitted my request before Christmas. So this gives you a glimpse of how reporters try to navigate the bureaucratic labyrinth that is the U.S. federal government. I finally got the green light in April to attend an "open house," which actually was a rather ceremonial event where I got to take pictures of the drones but didn't get to see any action because no missions were taking place. I did get to interview the retired Air Force Major General who's in charge of the government's border drone program.

So then I was invited back, in May, this time not only to take in a live border drone mission, but also to go out on boat patrol. The boat program -- it also has an official name, the Marine Interdiction Unit -- is also relatively new. Boat agents work in tandem with drone pilots in trying to get a handle on as much illegal activity as possible in the 350 miles of Texas coast and 1,250-mile Texas-Mexico border.

At the same time, it just so happened that my colleague Jill Replogle, one of the two Fronteras correspondents in San Diego, had also been working on a drone-related piece. Hers focused on the growing and influential drone caucus in Congress.

As if all that wasn't enough, in going over my field stories with my editor, Alisa Barba, we realized that we were missing some strong analytical voices on whether the drone program is truly effective or if it isn't all that the government makes it out to be. So instead of just inserting an expert here and there, we decided to give it appropriate space by dedicating another story solely to experts weighing in on the pros and cons of border drones.

So, there you have it -- a four-part series in the making.

We certainly hope we gave this important issue appropriate time and space and that you were able to learn something new from our stories. Feel free to let us know what you thought of them.

Curiously enough, unbeknownst to me, at the same time I was in Corpus Christi reporting on these stories, my former colleague and good friend Dane Schiller -- we worked together some years back at the San Antonio Express-News -- who's now a reporter at the Houston Chronicle also hit the waves with CBP out in the Gulf Coast and, in fact, he also jumped on a P-3 plane, a manned drone that mostly does drug interdiction duties deep in the Caribbean, often off the coast of Central and South America.

Another take on the border drone story comes from Brian Bennett, a Washington correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, whom I met in Corpus at that open house. And finally, here is another interesting report/aggregation on drones that you might find informative.