The Associated Press (AP) has released a report claiming that the FBI has got a fleet of planes that can be used to spy on American citizens from above. Although the FBI suggests that these planes are only used to bolster the Agency’s efforts on the ground, the AP – who tracked some of those planes for the duration of a month (starting in late April) – found that they often flew over up to a dozen US cities.
The report, which was carried out in conjunction with the Washington Times (who also helped track the planes,) has got a lot of people asking questions about what these spy planes are doing. It explains that aerial support for Bureau operations is nothing new, revealing that the agency has been actively supporting its ground work with planes since the 1980’s. The report also brings to light that the planes are owned and operated by ‘front’ companies: firstly in order to stop them being easily recognized as surveillance planes by those it seeks to monitor, and secondly to protect the safety of its pilots. Some of the 13 companies that the AP discovered to be ‘fronts’ for the FBI include FVX Research, KQM Aviation, NBR Aviation and PXW Services.
In reaction to the AP’s findings, FBI officials have explained that there is nothing extraordinary about supporting its efforts on the ground with aerial activities, and has made it clear that despite using ‘front’ companies to disguise the planes, the fact that they exist has never been a secret. Documents relating to the aviation programs budget (albeit redacted and censored) are freely available online. Spokesman Christopher Allen said,
‘The FBI’s aviation program is not secret. Specific aircraft and their capabilities are protected for operational security purposes.’
Law enforcement officials also told the Associated Press that although the FBI has got a fleet of planes, they are not the only agency that does. They explained that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and the US Marshall Service both have aviation operations that are fronted by fake companies, revealing just how widespread the practice is. Officials have also made it clear that the fake companies which the planes are registered to have all been created with the approval of the Justice Department.
Although the AP can not explain what the planes are being used for in particular, it does reveal that the planes have high quality cameras on board that can be used to take photographs and film from vast distances. The report also suggests that the planes have Stingray technology on board, which can fool mobile phones into thinking that the planes are a cell tower (cell-site simulation,) and allows the FBI to collect any phones’ (and not just the one pertaining to a suspect) 10 digit identification numbers in order to do follow up surveillance.
Even though the FBI claims there is nothing untoward about its aviation program, it is clear that little is known about what the planes actually do. This is mainly because their use is always left out of court documents relating to FBI cases. As such, despite bringing cases to fruition, their actual role in doing this is left largely to the imagination, making many feel uncomfortable about their capabilities. One other thing that is made clear, is that despite strong efforts, AP was unable to figure out how many spy planes are active within the FBI’s fleet – discovering only that the operation is vast.
Despite the FBI’s claims that the planes are not secret, when the amount of censorship that their online documents have been subjected to is taken into consideration, it becomes all too clear that the public is being kept in the dark as to their use. Nobody knows what they are doing or who they are surveilling, but the AP was able to track (in just 30 days since April) over 100 flights made by FBI planes (god knows how, considering they are unmarked and secret) over cities such as Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Seattle, as well as cities in Southern California, and even rural areas.
During the time that it tracked the FBI planes the AP discovered that the majority of them are Skylane aircraft, and that they often circle particular buildings and sites of interest for extended periods of time, collecting unknown information to help in undisclosed cases. The report even goes so far as to reveal some of the locations that were monitored… Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, and the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, for example.
Commenting on the aviation program, Charles Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said,
‘It’s important that federal law enforcement personnel have the tools they need to find and catch criminals, but whenever an operation may also monitor the activities of Americans who are not the intended target, we must make darn sure that safeguards are in place to protect the civil liberties of innocent Americans.’
Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union also agrees with Charles Grassley, arguing that the surveillance is particularly significant, ‘if the federal government is maintaining a fleet of aircraft whose purpose is to circle over American cities, especially with the technology we know can be attached to those aircraft.’
Despite the Associated Press’s concerted efforts to bring this fleet of planes activity to light, it seems unlikely that the FBI will either a) change the way in which they are using them, or b) suddenly reveal what they are being used for. For now, then, it would appear that exactly why the FBI is flying around certain places at such a dramatically high rate is going to remain a mystery…