Spies in the Skies

by Peter Aldhous and Charles Seife, BuzzFeed Each weekday, dozens of U.S. government aircraft take to the skies and slowly circle over American cities. Piloted by agents of the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the planes are fitted with high-resolution video cameras, often working with “augmented reality” software that can superimpose onto the video images everything from street and business names to the owners of individual homes. At least a few planes have carried devices that can track the cell phones of people below. Most of the aircraft are small, flying a mile or so above ground, and many use exhaust mufflers to mute their engines — making them hard to detect by the people they’re spying on. The government’s airborne surveillance has received little public scrutiny — until now. BuzzFeed News has assembled an unprecedented picture of the operation’s scale and sweep by analyzing aircraft location data collected by the flight-tracking website Flightradar24 from mid-August to the end of December last year, identifying about 200 federal aircraft. Day after day, dozens of these planes circled above cities across the nation.

Day after day, dozens of these planes circled above cities across the nation.

The FBI and the DHS would not discuss the reasons for individual flights but told BuzzFeed News that their planes are not conducting mass surveillance. The DHS said that its aircraft were involved with securing the nation’s borders, as well as targeting drug smuggling and human trafficking, and may also be used to support investigations by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. The FBI said that its planes are only used to target suspects in specific investigations of serious crimes, pointing to a statement issued in June 2015, after reporters and lawmakers started asking questions about FBI surveillance flights. “It should come as no surprise that the FBI uses planes to follow terrorists, spies, and serious criminals,” said FBI Deputy Director Mark Giuliano, in that statement. “We have an obligation to follow those people who want to hurt our country and its citizens, and we will continue to do so.” But most of these government planes took the weekends off. The BuzzFeed News analysis found that surveillance flight time dropped more than 70% on Saturdays, Sundays, and federal holidays. “The fact that they are mostly not flying on weekends suggests these are relatively run-of-the-mill investigations,” Nathan Freed Wessler, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Project on Speech, Privacy, and Technology, told BuzzFeed News. The government’s aerial surveillance programs deserve scrutiny by the Supreme Court, said Adam Bates, a policy analyst with the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C. “It’s very difficult to know, because these are very secretive programs, exactly what information they’re collecting and what they’re doing with it,” Bates told BuzzFeed News.

The BuzzFeed News analysis also revealed how the government responded to the mass shooting last December in San Bernardino, California.

Surveillance flight time dropped more than 70% on Saturdays, Sundays, and federal holidays.

In the weeks leading up to the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11, nearby neighborhoods in and around Los Angeles were watched intensively by FBI aircraft. But San Bernardino itself was apparently ignored: Our data shows no FBI surveillance flights over the city. That changed abruptly after the attack on the morning of Dec. 2. Within 90 minutes, two planes — one an FBI Cessna, the other a DHS Pilatus PC-12surveillance aircraft — were circling the scene. Later that afternoon, the FBI plane flew around the home of the two shooters, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik. Farook attended the nearby Dar Al Uloom Al-Islamiyah of America mosque. And starting Dec. 3, FBI planes traced circles with the mosque near their center. Three different FBI planes flew around the mosque, some circling for more than three hours at a time. There were flights on each day in the week after the attack — except for Saturday and Sunday.

The FBI told BuzzFeed News that it cannot launch investigations based on race, ethnicity, or religion — surveillance means that individual criminal suspects are being watched, not groups of people. But Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, an umbrella organization representing the region’s mosques and Islamic centers, told BuzzFeed News that he is alarmed that the FBI’s knee-jerk reaction to the San Bernardino massacre seems to have been to send its planes to watch the Dar Al Uloom mosque. “That is extremely troubling, and reconfirms the fears that we continue to talk about,” Syed said. “I don’t know that they have ever done surveillance of churches or synagogues when people of those traditions have committed acts of criminality.” In the months before the San Bernardino attack, some of the government’s surveillance planes circled over other neighborhoods with large Muslim populations. In the San Francisco Bay Area, for instance, there was a clear circle above Little Kabul in Fremont, home to the largest concentration of ethnic Afghans in the nation. The main concentrations of surveillance in Minneapolis, meanwhile, were above an area known as Little Mogadishu for its large Somali population. But these neighborhoods did not come under heightened aerial scrutiny after the terrorist mayhem in Paris on Nov. 13, nor after San Bernardino. And on Thanksgiving Day, less than two weeks after the Paris attacks, with the nation under a State Department–issued global terrorism alert, federal surveillance planes almost entirely stopped flying, only to resume once the holiday was over. The BuzzFeed News analysis almost certainly underestimates the scope of surveillance by federal aircraft. Some two dozen planes operated by the FBI and more than 130 registered to the DHS never appeared on Flightradar24, suggesting that some surveillance planes may be hidden from public view on plane-tracking websites. (See here for details on the BuzzFeed News analysis.) FBI planes have also on occasion been used to support local law enforcement. In April 2015, after riots broke out in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, FBI planes were sent to monitor the situation, documents obtained by the ACLU show. FBI Director James Comey told Congress that the agency’s aircraft also flew over Ferguson, Missouri, in the summer of 2014, after a local police officer shot Michael Brown. Responding to the BuzzFeed News analysis, FBI spokesman Christopher Allen said that planes may circle over cities while waiting for a suspect to emerge from a building. In some cases, the BuzzFeed News analysis showed that FBI aircraft indeed seemed to be following a vehicle from place to place, pausing to circle at each stop. Other flights, however, circled a single location for several hours, and then returned to their airfields.

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