Breaking News Emails
One Department of Justice agency spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on drones that never flew due to mechanical issues, and multiple agencies have unclear drone policies that can lead to costly confusion, according to a federal auditor's report.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) spent about $600,000 on six drones -- then never flew them because of technical problems with flight time, maneuverability and more, according to the report from the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) that audited DOJ units.
The ATF ended up canceling all of their drone-related operations and tossing the drones in the trash. The OIG said it was "troubled" ATF spent that kind of money on drones with problems that were "significant enough to render them unsuitable for deployment."
But just one week after the ATF suspended its drone operations, an ATF unit called the National Response Team bought five small drones for about $15,000 and didn't coordinate the purchase with the ATF.
That team tried one brief flight in July 2014 with one of the drones, about which they did not inform the ATF. They also did not receive approval from the Federal Aviation Administration as required for drone missions. The National Response Team ultimately grounded all their own drone operations pending more guidance on flight requirements.
Meanwhile, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which operates under the DOJ, spent $3 million on 34 drones between 2004 and 2013. As of last year, 17 of those drones were considered "operational," the OIG said. The FBI used drones in 13 investigations -- including kidnapping cases and anti-drug trafficking missions -- between September 2006 and August 2014, and the OIG found the FBI received proper certification from the FAA.
At the time of the OIG's review, which collected information through August 2014, only two pilots were assigned to operate all of the FBI's drones, which are housed in one centralized location.
"The single team of pilots has needed to travel up to thousands of miles to support FBI investigations across the United States," the OIG said.
Overall, the OIG recommended the FBI develop systems to reassess their drones' capabilities and staff's training needs. The auditor is also worried that the FBI drones' centralized location and small pilot staff will limit the agency's ability to use drones effectively.
The OIG said the FBI has taken steps toward change since the audit, and has made it a goal to disperse its drones over more locations within five years. But the OIG is concerned the FBI hasn't "fully developed plans" to make that a reality.
The auditor's recommendations for the ATF revolved around "improved coordination" between the bureau's units and better communication of drone policy. ATF officials should also conduct more thorough analysis of specific drones and their capabilities before they begin buying drones again, the OIG said.
The DOJ declined to comment to NBC News, directing questions instead to the ATF and FBI. The ATF did not reply to a request.
A FBI spokesman directed NBC News to an FBI official's letter included in the OIG report, which states the bureau was "pleased" the auditor found it had followed FAA rules and that it agreed with the recommendation for the bureau. The ATF's official letter included in the OIG report also said ATF would follow the auditor's recommendations
Apart from the DOJ agencies that were the focus of the report, the OIG also found that border patrol uses drones frequently. U.S. Customs and Border Protection -- which is part of the Department of Homeland Security -- gave the OIG data that showed Customs used drones in at least 95 missions that involved one or more DOJ agencies.