As revealed today by The Associated Press and CNN, the FBI has been operationg a secret fleet of planes and drones, kept off the offical books by a system of fake front companies.
While this was previously acknowledged in a DoJ IG report in 2012, the report was heavily redacted. These planes are equipped with both visual survielance tools and cell phone tower spoofers which, while the FBI claims are only used against specific investigations, but the very nature of how they operate (sucking down all cell phone communications in a specific tower area) means they are bulk collection tools.
Additionally these flights are much more numerous than previously indicated, with the AP reporting as many as 30 in 30 days over 11 states.
These flights are routinely conducted without a warrant and under a supposed system of internal review that the DoJ claims is a “state secret”, meaning of course without any regulation at all at the whim of whoever.
Does the FBI have a secret surveillance air force?
By Pamela Brown, CNN
2:17 PM ET, Tue June 2, 2015
The FBI uses a fleet of planes registered under fictitious companies in order to conduct warrantless surveillance during federal, state and local investigations. The surveillance is conducted without a court order, but with oversight from within the Department of Justice, according to a senior law enforcement official.
The agency flew above more than 30 cities in 11 states over a 30 day period, according to the AP review, and their report also said planes was masked by the existence of at least 13 fictitious companies.
The senior law enforcement official confirmed the existence of the fleet of planes to the CNN and said they are registered under fictitious companies because the FBI wants to be as discreet as possible.
“Anytime you mask your activity for operational or safety reasons you use a front company,” said the official. “You don’t want to put people on to what you’re doing – we know we’re going to need air aviation support for cases.”
The planes, which are equipped for electronic surveillance, are used both for FBI investigations and also at the request of state and local officials, according to the FBI. During recent Baltimore riots, for instance, the FBI used the surveillance aircraft at the request of the Baltimore Police Department.
According to the senior law enforcement official, the FBI does not need a court issued warrant to fly these surveillance planes because of rules established by the Department of Justice.
Report: FBI behind spy planes flying over US cities
June 2, 2015 10:39AM ET
The FBI is operating a small air force with scores of low-flying planes across the country carrying video and, at times, cellphone surveillance technology – all hidden behind fictitious companies that are fronts for the government, The Associated Press has learned.
The planes’ surveillance equipment is generally used without a judge’s approval, and the FBI said the flights are used for specific ongoing investigations.
U.S. law enforcement officials confirmed for the first time the wide-scale use of the aircraft, which the AP traced to at least 13 fake companies, such as FVX Research, KQM Aviation, NBR Aviation and PXW Services.
Even basic aspects of the program are withheld from the public in censored versions of official reports from the Justice Department’s inspector general.
The FBI has been careful not to reveal its surveillance flights in court documents.
(T)he planes can capture video of unrelated criminal activity on the ground that could be handed over for prosecutions.
Some of the aircraft can also be equipped with technology that can identify thousands of people below through the cellphones they carry, even if they are not making a call or are not in public.
“These are not your grandparents’ surveillance aircraft,” said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union, calling the flights 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.”
During the past few weeks, the AP tracked planes from the FBI’s fleet on more than 100 flights over at least 11 states plus the District of Columbia, most with Cessna 182T Skylane aircraft. These included parts of Houston, Phoenix, Seattle, Chicago, Boston, Minneapolis and Southern California.
Evolving technology can record higher-quality video from long distances, even at night, and can capture certain identifying information from cellphones using a device known as a cell-site simulator – or StingRay, to use one of the product’s brand names. These can trick cellphones into revealing identification numbers of subscribers, including those not suspected of a crime.
Officials say cellphone surveillance is rare, although the AP found in recent weeks FBI flights circling large buildings for extended periods where aerial photography would be less effective than electronic signal collection. Those sites included Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota.