Friday, March 27, 2009

Why secretly funded DEA surveillance planes aren't flying

WASHINGTON — The first sign of trouble with the Drug Enforcement Administration's new surveillance planes surfaced almost immediately. On the way from the manufacturer to the agency's aviation headquarters, one of them veered off a runway during a fuel stop.

The malfunction last spring was only the beginning. A month later, the windshield unlatched in mid-flight and smashed into the engine. Then, in a third incident on the same plane, a connection between the propeller and the engine came loose and forced an emergency landing.

In January, after less than 10 months of operation, the cascade of mechanical problems forced the DEA to ground the planes.

The planes recently were scheduled to be "cannibalized" so the DEA could sell the parts and recover as much of its money as possible.

The story behind why the DEA sought out the three planes, only to become the second federal agency to give them up, illustrates the pitfalls of "black," or classified, budgeting in which Congress approves tens of billions of dollars for intelligence agencies outside the public's view.

The twin-engine planes, manufactured by Schweizer Aircraft, likely came out of an even more shadowy funding provision known as "black earmarks," according to government officials with knowledge of the contract. The officials asked to remain anonymous because the planes, known as "Shadowhawks," received funding secretly.

Lawmakers often earmark projects to score sought-after contracts for companies back home.

The idea is to encourage cutting-edge research and development that wouldn't otherwise get approval during the ordinary budgeting process. During the regular and more transparent budgeting process, earmarks can sometimes pay for worthwhile projects, experts said.

Black earmarks, however, receive almost no scrutiny. Even worse, there's little accountability when the technology doesn't work.

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