Spying on Americans’ phone calls isn’t just a job for the National Security Agency these days. It seems as though the FBI has now gotten into the act. What’s more, the discovery wasn’t made by some big mainstream media paper or network, but by an independent journalist who is just 23 years old.
As noted by CBS Minnesota and The Associated Press (AP) after first being reported by Sam Richards of Minneapolis, who put out information under the Twitter handle @MinneapoliSam, the FBI has had to admit that it has a small air force of mostly Cessna-type aircraft it uses to circle above cities for hours to gather intelligence and generally monitor Americans’ movements and communications.
In formulating his original report, Richards, acting on a tip, discovered via the flight-tracking website FlightRadar24.com, that small aircraft had flown circles over Minneapolis/St. Paul and the Mall of America, which is protected airspace – meaning any aircraft would have to have permission to do so from federal authorities. His initial story also noted that similar flights had taken place over other major cities including New York, Chicago, Seattle, Phoenix and Dallas.
Since then, the mainstream media has taken up the story, and the AP has since traced some 50 aircraft back to the FBI that were registered to phony front companies, as well as identified in excess of 100 flights in 11 states over 30 days since late April. The AP found that the flights loitered over big cities and rural areas, as well, and that at least 115 planes, including 90 Cessna aircraft, were discussed in a federal budget document dating back to 2009.
Other agencies have their own planes, too
The AP further reported:
For decades, the planes have provided support to FBI surveillance operations on the ground. But now the aircraft are equipped with high-tech cameras, and in rare circumstances, technology capable of tracking thousands of cellphones, raising questions about how these surveillance flights affect Americans’ privacy.
“It’s important that federal law enforcement personnel have the tools they need to find and catch criminals,” Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said recently. “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.”
The FBI has said that its planes are not really outfitted for mass surveillance or bulk collection of data – but then again, the federal law enforcement agency has worked to keep its activities secret by a) refusing to inform the public of the flights; b) refusing to actually discuss what equipment is on each plane; and c) masking the activity by listing the planes with fake front companies.
“It’s not secret“
What’s more, according to the AP, the FBI most of the time uses the planes to conduct surveillance without obtaining a court order (which, under the Fourth Amendment, is required).
Amazingly, an FBI spokesman, when asked about the program, had the temerity to say the flights were above-ground.
“The FBI’s aviation program is not secret,” spokesman Christopher Allen said in a statement. “Specific aircraft and their capabilities are protected for operational security purposes.”
Really? The AP traced registration of planes back to at least 13 phony companies such as FVX Research, KQM Aviation, NBR Aviation and PXW Services. The FBI explained that away as saying the fake companies are used to protect pilots and to prevent suspects on the ground from knowing they are being followed – as if sophisticated criminals don’t have the resources, like the AP, to find out who is flying a plane in a non-standard orbit in their vicinity.
But alas, the FBI isn’t the only federal law agency with its own spy planes; the AP says the Drug Enforcement Agency has its own planes as well (registered to fake companies), as does the U.S. Marshal’s service.