FBI admits using drones to spy in US

The FBI uses drones to watch specific targets within the United States, bureau Director Robert Mueller revealed on Wednesday.

The news seemed to catch lawmakers by surprise, prompting calls for more oversight and scrutiny of the FBI’s use of unmanned aircraft for domestic surveillance.

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Mueller, making what will likely be his final appearance on Capitol Hill as FBI director, tried to reassure members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that the bureau uses drones infrequently for surveillance in the U.S., and only in regards to specific investigations.  

“Our footprint is very small,” Mueller said. “We have very few and have limited use.”

But with trust in the intelligence community slipping after revelations about secret surveillance at the National Security Agency, lawmakers indicated they would not let the subject drop. 

After the hearing, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) sent Attorney General Eric Holder a letter requesting more details about the use of drones by the FBI and other Justice Department agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). 

Grassley pressed Holder for more information about the number and types of drones used by the FBI, how often they are used and in what types of operations, what limitations are placed on their use and whether warrants are required, as well as whether the FBI’s drones are capable of being armed. 

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, also said she would ask the FBI for more information about the regulations that govern drone use. 

“There’s very little regulation on a booming commercial drone program,” Feinstein said in a brief interview. “There are major privacy questions. There are height questions and whether they can operate near an airport. I want to know what their rules and regulations are.”

Mueller had never spoken publicly about the use of drones by the FBI before Wednesday, though CNN reported earlier this year that the agency used an unmanned aircraft to monitor a hostage situation in Alabama involving 5-year-old child. 

Local law enforcement agencies have told Congress about their use of the unmanned aerial vehicles as well, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is widely known to use unmanned aircraft to monitor the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Mueller told the committee that the FBI was in “the initial stages” of developing privacy guidelines for how the agency balances civil liberty concerns with security threats.

Feinstein told Mueller she believes drones are the most dangerous threat to privacy facing the country, particularly the use of drones by private companies.

Mueller stressed that the FBI’s use of drones is limited.

“It’s very seldom used and generally used in a particular incident where you need the capability,” Mueller said.

“It is very narrowly focused on particularized needs in particularized cases, and that is the principle of privacy limitations we have.”

Mueller said he wasn’t certain whether the FBI had any official agreements with other agencies — such as the Department of Defense or the DHS — to receive assistance in using drones.

“To the extent that it relates to the air space there would be some communication back and forth [between agencies],” Mueller said.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he was shocked to hear about the FBI’s drone fleet. He said the revelation spoke to a larger need for Congress to conduct vigorous oversight. 

“This whole situation with what we are doing with new technologies has got to have better oversight by the Congress,” McCain told The Hill. “There’s going to have to be a review of everything we do. I don’t disagree that we’ve thwarted plots or that it’s been effective. But the American people need to know as much as possible. 

Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, agreed with McCain, saying that more information about government intelligence programs needs to be shared with the public. But he stopped short of confirming whether or not the FBI operates a drone program.  

Concerns in Congress about the use of drones both domestically and overseas have been increasing.

While Mueller told lawmakers that the FBI uses drones domestically only for surveillance, members have expressed fears of a “slippery slope” where armed drones are eventually used in the U.S.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) made headlines earlier this year when he delivered a 13-hour talking filibuster of CIA nominee John Brennan that forced the Obama administration to say it could not legally kill citizens on American soil with a drone. 

The use of drones by the American military and the CIA to attack terrorists began under former President George W. Bush, but President Obama has increased the use of the armed, unmanned aerial vehicles dramatically — largely in the Middle East — to target terrorism suspects.


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