Monday, August 17, 2015 by nationalsecurity
Unbeknownst to most Americans, the nation’s premier federal law enforcement agency has its own air force and uses it to spy on people.
As reported by ARS Technica, as tensions surrounding the recent protests and violence in Baltimore began to subside, a small squadron of innocuous-looking aircraft circled overhead, keeping watch on the neighborhoods most affected by rioting and other acts.
The planes gave Baltimore City Police overhead surveillance capabilities both in monitoring the protests and keeping an eye out for any potential criminal activity.
Further reporting by the Washington Post noted that the planes – some of them, anyway – are part of the FBI’s secret surveillance air force made up of small aircraft outfitted with sensors that were perfected on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan to gather intelligence.
The Post said the planes have quietly seen service nationwide. They are equipped with high-definition night and daylight surveillance systems, and they are giving police a new way to spot curfew breakers (and other activity as of yet undetermined) from above cities.
“During the recent unrest, the FBI provided aircraft to the Baltimore Police Department for the purpose of providing aerial imagery of possible criminal activity,” an unnamed FBI spokesman told ARS Technica.
“The aircraft were specifically used to assist in providing high-altitude observation of potential criminal activity to enable rapid response by police officers on the ground.”
The spokesman added that the flights “were not there to monitor lawfully protected First Amendment activity, and any FBI aviation support to a local law enforcement agency must receive high level approvals.”
For the record, the FBI has a history of monitoring “First Amendment activity.” In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the agency – at the behest of President Nixon and director J. Edgar Hoover – monitored anti-Vietnam War protests and protesters, including current Secretary of State John F. Kerry. The FBI’s 1960s-and-70s-era monitoring activities were part of the focus of the Church Committee, whose findings of government intelligence overreach eventually led to the passage of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the creation of the FISA court.
Baltimore City Police spokesman Capt. Eric Kowalczyk told ARS Technica that his department had received a number of media requests regarding the FBI flights, but the department had yet to issue a statement about them.
The Washington Post reported that the flights were noticed by residents of Baltimore, with some inquiring on Twitter about “the light plane” flying “in circles” above the city during the recent unrest.
The Post also noted that one plane circling Baltimore “was registered to NG Research in Bristow, near Manassas Regional Airport. Searches of public records revealed little about the company, which could not be reached,” the paper reported.
The Post further reported that civil liberties groups concerned about privacy have begun to ask questions:
Discovery of the flights – which involved at least two airplanes and the assistance of the FBI – has prompted the American Civil Liberties Union to demand answers about the legal authority for the operations and the reach of the technology used. Planes armed with the latest surveillance systems can monitor larger areas than police helicopters and stay overhead longer, raising novel civil liberties issues that have so far gotten little scrutiny from courts.
Civil libertarians are concerned that the surveillance technology employed by the little-known FBI air force is capable of quietly gathering images across dozens of city blocks and even square miles that captures movements of people who are otherwise not under any suspicion of crime. For its part, the ACLU said it would be filing Freedom of Information Act requests with federal agencies to learn more about the surveillance planes and their roles.
“A lot of these technologies sweep very, very broadly, and, at a minimum, the public should have a right to know what’s going on,” Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU specializing in privacy and technology issues, told the Post.