AP reporters recently did some very good investigative reporting, and The Washington Post published the story:
By JACK GILLUM, EILEEN SULLIVAN and ERIC TUCKER
WASHINGTON (AP) — 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. 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 FBI’s aviation program is not secret,” spokesman Christopher Allen said in a statement.
And technically this is true: as the piece notes, “A 1990 report by the then-General Accounting Office noted that, in July 1988, the FBI had moved its ‘headquarters-operated’ aircraft into a company that wasn’t publicly linked to the bureau.” But then the spokesweasel says this:
“Specific aircraft and their capabilities are protected for operational security purposes.”
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.
Got that everyone? The existence of the FBI aviation surveillance program is not secret. However, everything about the FBI’s aviation surveillance program is secret. But not to worry: the FBI is complying with its own secret rules that it made up in secret.
The spokesweasel continues:
Allen added that the FBI’s planes “are not equipped, designed or used for bulk collection activities or mass surveillance.”
The FBI does not generally obtain warrants to record video from its planes of people moving outside in the open, but it also said that under a new policy it has recently begun obtaining court orders to use cell-site simulators.
A cell-site simulator, in case you might be wondering, mimics a commercial cell tower, thereby tricking cell phones in the region into providing identifying information. It works even if the phone is not in public or actively using a cellular network (i.e. on a call or texting). This is quintessential mass surveillance technology, specifically designed to effortlessly sweep up thousands of identities. So while one official FBI spokesweasel says its planes “are not equipped, designed or used for bulk collection activities or mass surveillance,” another spokesweasel interviewed for the same story says that the agency is obtaining court orders to use cell-site simulators, but claiming their use is “rare.” So which is it, nonexistent or rare? And rare compared to what? Capturing HD video of the public without warrants? Get your stories straight, official spokesweasels!
Speaking of weasels:
President Barack Obama has said he welcomes a debate on government surveillance, and has called for more transparency about spying in the wake of disclosures about classified programs.
The Obama administration had until recently been directing local authorities through secret agreements not to reveal their own use of the devices, even encouraging prosecutors to drop cases rather than disclose the technology’s use in open court.
A Justice Department memo last month also expressly barred its component law enforcement agencies from using unmanned drones “solely for the purpose of monitoring activities protected by the First Amendment” and said they are to be used only in connection with authorized investigations and activities. A department spokeswoman said the policy applied only to unmanned aircraft systems rather than piloted airplanes.
According to my LadyLogic™, this means piloted aircraft can indeed be used solely for the purpose of monitoring activities protected by the First Amendment. Glad we’ve cleared that up.
“Aircraft surveillance has become an indispensable intelligence collection and investigative technique which serves as a force multiplier to the ground teams,” the FBI said in 2009 when it asked Congress for $5.1 million for the program.
“Force multiplier” is a military term. Now that I think about it, I’m surprised they used the words “ground teams” instead of “boots on the ground.” Of course all of this technology comes out of our disastrous War on Terror generally, and drone use specifically. In other words, America’s Owners (Military-Industrial Weasel Division) have seen to it that domestic law enforcement is a lucrative and booming market for their war toys—which necessarily means the US public is the intended target. Need I remind anyone that all of this is paid for by taxpayers? Or that we are all terrorists now in the eyes of the state?
Among many salient facts lost in the NSA reform debate—like the rather revealing and critical fact that none of these domestic surveillance programs work for their alleged purposes—is that NSA is only one of many local, state and federal agencies, including the FBI, funneling its surveillance intel to fusion centers. Readers should not be surprised to learn that a two year Senate investigation into fusion centers “could identify no reporting which uncovered a terrorist threat, nor could it identify a contribution such fusion center reporting made to disrupt an active terrorist plot.” But that doesn’t mean the surveillance state hasn’t been very busy treating enormous swaths of the citizenry as threats to national security: anti-war activists, Muslim lobbyists, abortion rights activists, environmental groups, third-party voters and motorcycle clubs. The Maryland State Police put anti-death penalty and anti-war activists in a federal terrorism database; a foreigner with an expired visa who had been caught shoplifting shoes at a Neiman Marcus was added to the list of “known or appropriately suspected” terrorists.
And the right isn’t spared, either: fusion centers have tracked Tea Party groups, a Second Amendment rally, Ron Paul supporters and pro-lifers. This should go without saying, but in case it does not: as much as I hate right-wing conservatives—and I do, I really, really hate right-wing conservatives—they should not be subject to blanket surveillance either. There are constitutional law enforcement methods of investigation that cannot possibly be less effective at preventing terrorism than mass surveillance. Unless, just maybe, preventing terrorism is not actually what these programs are designed to do…? Oh, I forgot to mention: another source of intel sent to fusion centers is “the private sector.” I will let readers ruminate on what exactly that might entail, but I’m pretty sure those sources have names that rhyme with Oldman Hacks, A.B. Organ Face, Crank Love Numerica and KittyStank.
Tl:dr: The idea that even the most radical, ACLU-endorsed reforms of NSA’s programs, or the abolishment of the agency entirely, will in any way hinder the US surveillance state’s activities on behalf of America’s Owners is downright laughable.
[a version of this column appeared at perry street palace.]