AP Uncovers More Than 100 FBI Spy Plane Flights, Originating From Shell Companies Located In Virginia
from the if-nothing-else,-FBI-lacks-the-imagination-of-the-NSA-when-naming-things dept
It’s not just the US Marshals Service flying spy planes over the US, loaded with cameras and/or cell tower spoofers. The flying “dirtboxes” of the Marshals came to light last year, and were swiftly neither confirmed nor denied by DOJ spokespeople, who also noted the flights that may/may not be happening are all perfectly lawful and very much not the now-(temporarily)-expired Section 215 program. (I am not making that last part up.)
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.
In a recent 30-day period, the agency flew above more than 30 cities in 11 states across the country, an AP review found.
The AP investigation tracked down documents relating to the FBI’s fleet of spy planes, ones that hide the FBI’s aircraft behind corporate registrations (i.e., not as easily traceable to the US government) and a variety of three-letter shell companies.
Here’s a screenshot of Cessna single-engine planes registered in the Bristow, VA area. (Bristow seems to be the “home” of federal spy planes.)
If this was just one name in a long listing, there would be nothing suspicious about it. But in a single page of search results, the following nonexistent companies can be found, all of them containing no more ownership information than a PO Box:
NG Research (an exception!)
A plane registered to PXW Services was spotted flying over Minneapolis, MN. The FBI may be able to hide its planes behind obviously phony companies, but it can’t keep its flight data secret. The flights show obvious surveillance patterns, rather than giving any appearance of “normal” behavior.
Despite the secrecy of the shell companies and the FBI’s hesitance to discuss its spy tech, the agency claims this is not a secret.
“The FBI’s aviation program is not secret,” spokesman Christopher Allen said in a statement. “Specific aircraft and their capabilities are protected for operational security purposes.” Allen added that the FBI’s planes “are not equipped, designed or used for bulk collection activities or mass surveillance.”
And, as usual, the FBI notes that all of its operations are perfectly lawful, even if the public can’t actually verify for itself that this assertion is true.
The surveillance flights comply with agency rules, an FBI spokesman said. Those rules, which are heavily redacted in publicly available documents, limit the types of equipment the agency can use, as well as the justifications and duration of the surveillance.
Then there’s this:
The FBI asked the AP not to disclose the names of the fake companies it uncovered, saying that would saddle taxpayers with the expense of creating new cover companies to shield the government’s involvement, and could endanger the planes and integrity of the surveillance missions. The AP declined the FBI’s request because the companies’ names — as well as common addresses linked to the Justice Department — are listed on public documents and in government databases.
The fake companies used by the FBI can be “uncovered” through a simple Google search, which is how I arrived at the FAA’s listings late last week, before the AP’s story broke. (The line about the “expense” of dreaming up wholly-unimaginative “business” names and renting another block of PO Boxes is far too cute, though.) Sure, there’s nothing explicitly linking the two (until now), but if the public can be watched in public areas, so too can the FBI’s flights. All of this originated from tail numbers of planes seen circling overhead, the flight patterns of those planes and querying publicly-available databases. What’s good for the FBI (no expectation of privacy in public areas) is good for the public. The FBI shouldn’t be asking journalists to withhold publicly-available information, especially considering the only conceivable purpose it serves is to deprive the AP of evidence for its assertions.