The FBI uses drones to watch specific targets within the United States, the bureau’s chief said Wednesday.
“Our footprint is very small,” Mueller said in testimony. “We have very few and have limited use.”
Mueller said the FBI was in “the initial stages” of developing privacy guidelines for how the agency balances civil liberty concerns with security threats.
Mueller made the revelation before the Senate Judiciary Committee after being questioned by the panel’s ranking member, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). The news comes amid a debate over National Security Agency programs used to collect U.S. phone records and overseas Internet data.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told Mueller that she believes drones are the most dangerous threat to the privacy of Americans, particularly the use of drones by private companies.
Mueller sought to assure Feinstein that the FBI’s use of drones was “very seldom” and only used in isolated instances.
“It’s very seldom used and generally used in a particular incident where you need the capability,” said Mueller.
“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 Department of Homeland Security — to receive assistance in the agency’s use of drones.
“To the extent that it relates to the air space there would be some communication back and forth [between agencies],” Mueller said.
Mueller’s acknowledgment Wednesday comes in the wake of a series of escalating tensions between the Obama administration and Congress over the broad use of drones, both domestically and overseas.
While Mueller told lawmakers that the FBI uses drones domestically only for surveillance purposes, members have had growing concerns over the use of armed drones.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) made headlines in the lead-up to CIA Director John Brennan’s confirmation earlier this year when he delivered a 13-hour talking filibuster aimed at delaying the vote until the administration told him that it could not legally kill U.S. citizens on American soil using a drone strike, which Attorney General Eric Holder ultimately did.
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 individuals his administration suspects are carrying out acts of terrorism.
Obama laid out the administration’s policy and rationale for the increased use of drone strikes abroad in a speech last month, saying that the U.S. “does not take strikes when we have the ability to capture individual terrorists.”
“Our preference is always to detain, interrogate, and prosecute,” said the president in his speech at the National Defense University. “America cannot take strikes wherever we choose; our actions are bound by consultations with partners, and respect for state sovereignty.”
In a letter to Congress the day before Obama’s speech, Holder said that four Americans suspected of terrorism had been killed abroad in “counterterrorism” operations since 2009. In all four instances, drones have been reported as being used.
The most widely known case, which initially prompted congressional concern, came in 2011 when U.S. officials targeted and killed American-born Anwar al-Awlaki in a drone strike. Al-Awlaki was known for inciting attacks against the United States, such as the 2009 Fort Hood mass shooting, the thwarted “underwear” bombing of a U.S.-bound plane the same year and the failed Times Square bombing in 2010.
Holder first laid out the administration’s justification for targeting U.S. citizens abroad in a speech at Northwestern University last year.
He said that the government’s definition of a person who posed an “imminent threat” consisted of three criteria: there was a limited open window for attacking the person, a grave possible harm that not attacking the target could have on U.S. civilians, and a strong likelihood that targeting the person would head off a future attack against the United States.
—This report was originally published at 11:28 a.m. and last updated at 1:35 p.m.