FBI Should Come Clean on Surveillance Aircraft

Here in the Twin Cities, it started when a man described as an aviation buff noticed a small airplane acting oddly. The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported on May 29:

Aviation buff John Zimmerman was at a weekly gathering of neighbors Friday night when he noticed something peculiar: a small plane circling a route overhead that didn’t make sense to him.

It was dark, so a sightseeing flight didn’t make sense, and when Zimmerman pulled up more information on an aviation phone app he routinely checks, he had immediate concerns.

The plane’s flight path, recorded by the website flightradar24.com, would eventually show that it circled downtown Minneapolis, the Mall of America and Southdale Center at low altitude for hours starting at 10:30 p.m., slipping off radar just after 3 a.m.

Between Mr. Zimmerman and the paper’s reporters, quite a bit of information came to light:

Similar flights have since been spotted near Chicago, Boston and in California, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU has filed several Freedom of Information Act requests for more information.

It believes the planes use cameras and infrared imaging technology to photograph people and vehicles in a broad swath of the city; technology to sweep up cellphone data from a plane also exists, but it’s not clear if the FBI flights use it.

A spokesman for the Twin Cities FBI office had no comment on the recent flight, saying he couldn’t speak to an “operational matter.” He declined to say if the plane belongs to the FBI or if it was acting at the request of a local law enforcement agency.

Today the Associated Press produced an admirable piece of reporting: “AP Exclusive: FBI behind mysterious fleet of aircraft conducting surveillance over US cities.”

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. The FBI said it uses front companies to protect the safety of the pilots and aircraft. It also shields the identity of the aircraft so that suspects on the ground don’t know they’re being watched by the FBI. …

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.

It turns out that fragmentary information about the FBI’s aerial surveillance program has been in the public domain for a while. The agency confirmed that it uses fictitious companies (and, it appears, people) to register the airplanes:

At least 13 front companies that AP identified being actively used by the FBI are registered to post office boxes in Bristow, Virginia, which is near a regional airport used for private and charter flights. Only one of them appears in state business records.

Included on most aircraft registrations is a mysterious name, Robert Lindley. He is listed as chief executive and has at least three distinct signatures among the companies. Two documents include a signature for Robert Taylor, which is strikingly similar to one of Lindley’s three handwriting patterns.

The FBI would not say whether Lindley is a U.S. government employee.

The nature of the surveillance conducted by the FBI’s aircraft is a bit puzzling:

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 pinpointed cellphones into revealing identification numbers of subscribers, including those not suspected of a crime.

Officials say cellphone surveillance is rare….

Can an airplane a mile in the air really obtain video footage, at night, that is superior to what is constantly recorded by security cameras on the ground? And what triggers aerial surveillance? It seems to be frequent and widespread, but not constant. It is hard to believe that there is much value in random aerial footage of Minneapolis at night. So are the flights triggered by intelligence about possible criminal or terrorist activity?

As for cell phones, the FBI says it has “recently” begun getting court orders when it wants to locate a person by “tricking” his cell phone. If this activity isn’t plainly covered by the 4th Amendment, it should be.

Is any of this sinister? Probably not at present, but it has the potential to become sinister quickly. Given the pervasive lawlessness of the Obama administration, suspicion is not only justified, it is necessary. The FBI should come clean: as citizens, we have a right to know, at least in general, what intelligence gathering is going on over our heads, and what, if anything, the government is doing with our cell phones.