The Associated Press broke the story yesterday:
The planes’ surveillance equipment is generally used without a judge’s approval, and the FBI said the flights are used for specific, ongoing investigations. In a recent 30-day period, the agency flew above more than 30 cities in 11 states across the country, an AP review found.
The FBI 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.
In a statement, spokesman Christopher Allen said, “The FBI’s aviation program is not secret. Specific aircraft and their capabilities are protected for operational security purposes.” He added that the FBI’s planes “are not equipped, designed or used for bulk collection activities or mass surveillance.”
But the planes CAN capture video of unrelated criminal activity on the ground that could be handed over for prosecutions. And some of the planes can be equipped with technology that can identify thousands of people below through the cellphones they carry – even if they’re not making a call or in public. Officials said that practice, which mimics cell towers into giving up basic subscriber information, is rare.
More from the AP:
Details confirmed by the FBI track closely with published reports since at least 2003 that a government surveillance program might be behind suspicious-looking planes slowly circling neighborhoods. The AP traced at least 50 aircraft back to the FBI, and identified more than 100 flights since late April orbiting both major cities and rural areas.
One of the planes, photographed in flight last week by the AP in northern Virginia, bristled with unusual antennas under its fuselage and a camera on its left side. A federal budget document from 2010 mentioned at least 115 planes, including 90 Cessna aircraft, in the FBI’s surveillance fleet.
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 Washington, D.C., most with Cessna 182T Skylane aircraft. These included parts of Houston, Phoenix, Seattle, Chicago, Boston, Minneapolis and Southern California.
The FBI asked the AP not to reveal the names of the fake companies it uncovered.
The reason? The agency said doing so would saddle taxpayers with the expense of creating new cover companies to shield the government’s involvement, and could endanger the planes and integrity of the surveillance missions.
That’s right: we, the taxpayers, are footing the bill for more Orwellian surveillance that is likely unconstitutional and sounds to be “mostly” warrantless.
The AP declined the FBI’s request because the companies’ names – as well as common addresses linked to the Justice Department – are listed on public documents and in government databases.
Oh, by the way, the program came with a hefty price tag (as all government programs do):
“Aircraft surveillance has become an indispensable intelligence collection and investigative technique which serves as a force multiplier to the ground teams,” the FBI said in 2009 when it asked Congress for $5.1 million for the program.
For more details on the surveillance program, please see the AP’s article FBI Confirms Wide-Scale Use Of Surveillance Flights Over U.S. Cities.