In the dead of night, from a trailer humming with surveillance monitors, a pilot for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency was remotely flying a Predator drone more than 1,000 miles away.
From an altitude of 15,000 feet, over the desert ranchlands of Arizona, the drone’s all-seeing eyeball swiveled and powerful night-vision infrared cameras zeroed in on a pickup truck rattling along a washboard road.
“Hey, where’s that guy going?” the mission controller asked the drone’s camera operator, who toggled his joystick, glued to the monitors like a teenager with a Christmas morning Xbox.
This is the semi-covert cutting edge of homeland security, where federal law enforcement authorities are rapidly expanding a military-style unmanned aerial reconnaissance operation along the U.S.-Mexico border — a region that privacy watchdogs say includes a lot of American back yards.
Fans of the Predators say the $20 million aircraft are a perfect platform to keep a watchful eye on America’s rugged borders, but critics say the drones are expensive, invasive and finicky toys that have done little — compared with what Border Patrol agents do on the ground — to stem the flow of illegal immigrants, drug smugglers or terrorists.