The FBI assured Congress in an unusual, confidential briefing that its plane surveillance program is a by-the-books operation short on high-definition cameras — with some planes equipped with binoculars — and said only five times in five years has it tracked cellphones from the sky.
The FBI would not openly answer some questions about its planes, which routinely orbit major U.S. cities and rural areas. Although the FBI has described the program as unclassified and not secret, it declined to disclose during an unclassified portion of a Capitol Hill briefing any details about how many planes it flies or how much the program costs. In a 2009 budget document, the FBI said it had 115 planes in its fleet.
The briefing Wednesday to Senate staff was the first effort in recent years — if ever — to impose oversight for the FBI's 30-year aerial surveillance program that gives support to specific, ongoing investigations into counterterrorism, espionage and criminal cases and ground surveillance operations. While it withheld some details, it offered assurances that the planes are not intended to perform mass surveillance or bulk intelligence collection. However, there is still no formal oversight regimen for the program.
The briefing came two weeks after the FBI confirmed to The Associated Press for the first time its wide-scale use of the aircraft, after the AP traced at least 50 planes registered to fake companies back to the FBI. – Associated Press, June 18, 2015
Critics often deride those wary of government surveillance as paranoid tinfoil hat wearers. We're learning now that paranoia may be entirely appropriate. It turns out the FBI really is watching Americans from the sky. We know this because the FBI itself said so.
The AP story reads like a twisted Alice-in-Wonderland tale. FBI officials told Congress the program is unclassified and not secret, but then refused to answer certain questions in public. They were simple questions, too. How many planes does the FBI have? What is the aerial surveillance program's cost?
From what little they did say, it looks like the program started 30 years ago. That would be 1985, long before anyone feared ISIS or Osama bin Laden. What was the FBI watching from above back then?
We know very little more about the FBI's targets today. According to AP, most of the bureau aircraft lack high-definition video cameras. Officials claim to have only tracked cell phones five times in the last five years. They also say the planes don't conduct mass surveillance or bulk intelligence collection.
What in the world are they doing up there, then?
For a program that is supposedly not secret, the FBI went to great lengths to disguise its ownership of the planes. The tail numbers led to shell companies with Virginia P.O. box addresses. The ruse didn't work, mainly because the Justice Department owned the PO boxes and used them publicly for other purposes, too.
If this is any indication of the FBI's ability to cover its tracks, it seems likely the program is just another government boondoggle. Maybe someone with political ties is getting paid handsomely to fly empty planes in circles.
Alternatively, the planes could be doing the very things FBI officials deny. This would mean they are lying to both the public and members of Congress, but we know intelligence agencies routinely lie about their activities. They even have a term for it: "plausible deniability."
In this case, the denials ceased being plausible due to the P.O. box mistake. The FBI could be trying to backtrack and salvage what it can. If so, we still have the core question: What are those planes doing up there?
Keep the tinfoil hat handy, America. Be wary if you live in another country, too. The FBI may have shared its techniques with your domestic authorities, as well.