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The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) spent about $600,000 on six drones “but never flew them,” according to a Justice Department inspector general report released Wednesday. 

The bureau’s Special Operations Division purchased three different drone models from 2011-2012. The ATF eventually scrapped its drone program in 2014 after the unmanned aircraft systems, intended for video surveillance, were found to have technical defects, according to the report.

{mosads}The battery for a smaller, nearly $90,000 drone lasted just 20 minutes, less than half its billed time, while another drone costing about $315,000 also had technical defects, according to the report. 

Deemed “unsuitable for operational use,” all six drones and related equipment were transferred last summer to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS). The NCIS did not immediately return a request for comment.

The inspector general did not name the drones’ manufacturer.  

Less than a week after the ATF’s Special Operations Division suspended its drone program in June 2014, another ATF branch, its National Response Team, purchased five smaller, 3-pound drones totaling $15,000 to document fire and crime scenes. 

The latter unit flew one of the smaller drones to document a deadly Louisiana apartment fire before officials realized they needed approval from the Federal Aviation Administration. 

Neither branch coordinated over transferring the larger drones between units, the report indicated. The watchdog called for ATF to better communicate its drone policies across units.

Department of Homeland Security flight records show it has operated drones 95 times between 2010-2013 for Justice Department-related missions, including 73 flights for the Drug Enforcement Agency, 13 for the FBI, four for the ATF, three for the U.S. Marshals Service and twice for the DOJ itself.

The FBI is the only DOJ agency with operational drones — 17 of its 34 drones, as of August 2014. It has used the drones for aerial surveillance in 13 investigations, according to the report, involving cases such as kidnappings, manhunts and anti-drug-trafficking operations.  


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