Posted by Eddie Bejarano on June 05, 2015 in Blog

FBI_plane_camera.jpgEarlier this week the Associated Press (AP) broke a story that revealed that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) operates a large fleet of surveillance aircrafts in various cities across the country under thirteen fake company names. Most of the planes are equipped with high-tech cameras but a very small number of these planes even have the technology to track thousands of cellphones. These flights are normally conducted as part of federal, state and local investigations. The existence of this program is not new news but the size of the fleet was previously unknown.

In 2012, the Department of Justice’s Inspector General released a report discussing the FBI’s aviation operations in 2012 but a majority of the details about the size of the fleet, the expenses surrounding it and its use were redacted from the public version.  According to the AP’s report, the FBI operated over 100 flights in eleven states over a 30-day period since the end of April 2015. Most of the flights operated in the skies of major urban centers such as Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Seattle and southern California.

It is important to note that these surveillance flights are conducted without a court order but are protected by rules established by the Department of Justice (DOJ). When an FBI spokesman was asked to explain why the planes were registered under fake company names, he responded that particular details are “protected for operational security purposes.” Federal agencies such as the FBI, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) regularly employ this justification to keep their operations shrouded in mystery. There is no doubt that certain national security operations must be handled covertly, but when surveillance planes may collect the cellular data of American citizens then transparency is essential.

Given that the U.S. Senate just wrapped up a contentious debate over the spying powers that the USA Patriot Act provides the National Security Agency (NSA), the FBI activities must be considered within that context.  For too long federal agencies have used explanations such as ‘upholding national security’ and ‘maintaining the integrity of operations’ to keep the American public uninformed about its activities. Yet, as Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley assessed, “…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.”

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