A report from the North Star Post has revealed the existence of a fleet of surveillance aircraft operated by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) that has been flying over various locations within the United States, as well as foreign destinations (the North Star Post is the publication started by journalist Sam Richards, who originally broke the story about the Federal Bureau of Investigations operating similar surveillance flights).
According to the North Star Post, the DEA does not obtain warrants for surveillance of public locations within the United States or in “foreign environments.”
“The United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is operating a fleet of surveillance aircraft over locations within the United States as well as ‘foreign environments,’” according to Jeffrey Stramm, a special agent in charge of DEA aviation division.
The Administration does not “get warrants for public space surveillance,” Stramm said in a phone call with The Post. He went on to say this surveillance program is “in accordance with Title 21 United States Code.”
Although Stramm would not confirm the number of aircraft that make up the fleet, The Post’s investigation identified 92 aircraft as of 2011. According to an Office of the Inspector General (OIG) report, the FY2010 budget for DEA aviation operations was $47.6 million. The report also stated that the DEA employed 108 Special Agent Pilots as of June 2011.
The report found the DEA has registered 30 aircraft to a post office box in Houston, Texas under the corporation “Silver Creek Aviation Services.” Other than the P.O. box and the registration, there is no proof the company actually exists. This would match previous reports that revealed the FBI was also operating surveillance flights registered under fake company names such as “FVX Research.”
Following the revelations on FBI surveillance flights, the bureau held a confidential briefing with Congress to explain the program. Government officials present at the briefing told the AP the operation was standard operating procedure and had only been used five times in five years. Despite the program being unclassified, the FBI declined to release details on how many spy planes are in operation. The bureau did reveal that around 85 percent of the aircraft use infrared cameras. The remaining 15 percent use binoculars for surveillance.
Regarding the DEA flights, Stramm told the Post that registering planes under fake companies provides “a level of protection” against “the bad guys.” Unfortunately, the DEA’s aviation division does not allow their aircraft information to be tracked by air traffic sites, so the locations of the flights are relatively unknown. Because of this, it is relatively difficult to ascertain what type of surveillance equipment was attached to the planes. The Post did report that photos of DEA planes appear to show cell site simulator technology, or advanced imaging technology, attached to the body of the aircraft. This would confirm suspicions that these aircraft are outfitted with cell phone surveillance tools known as “Stingrays” or “Dirt Boxes.”
In late 2014, the Wall Street Journal revealed the existence of a cell phone monitoring program operated by the U.S. Marshals Service using small planes. The program involved the Marshals using Cessna planes mounted with Stingrays (for more information check out this Guide to Stingray Technology).
In response to the spy plane revelations, the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information request with the FBI, DEA, and U.S. Marshals Service seeking information about these flights. They also filed a FOIA request with the FAA to attempt to obtain the flight plans.
While the public remains largely ignorant of the extreme level of surveillance in the United States, the situation seems to be escalating quickly. Jay Stanley of the American Civil Liberties Union believes the technology could already be used in tandem with drone aircraft. The results he said, would be a “nightmare scenario for drones: wide-area mass surveillance and location tracking of entire cities and towns.”
“I wrote recently about ARGUS, the high-flying drone technology capable of capturing super-high-definition video of a 15-square mile area and automatically tracking all moving vehicles and people within that area,” he said.
Now that the DEA’s surveillance flights have been revealed, Americans have an even clearer picture of the Surveillance State. Planes operated by federal agencies using fake companies are flying above American skies, possibly using infrared imaging, stingrays, or drones to monitor the movements and gather cellphone information from the unaware public below. This is the reality for the American population in 2015. What will you do to combat the growing police and surveillance states? When will you draw your line in the sand?
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