National Security

Grassley presses FBI for answers on mysterious surveillance flights

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Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is pressing the FBI for answers on mysterious surveillance flights the agency conducted in cities across the United States. 

In a letter to FBI Director James Comey on Monday, Grassley asked about the legal authority, and the scope and purpose of the flights. He also wants to know what kind of technology the flights are carrying. 

{mosads}His request came only hours before an Associated Press report Tuesday morning detailed more than 100 such flights around the country in the past few weeks that can be traced back to fake companies set up to disguise the FBI’s involvement. 

“It’s not a secret that the FBI is operating in the skies above our nation’s cities and towns, but what’s unclear is precisely what the Bureau is doing and what legal framework is being used to guide its activity,” Grassley wrote in his letter

He said it is important that the program “protect the civil liberties of innocent Americans.” He asked for a staff briefing on the program by next Friday. 

The AP reported the planes capture video of scenes below, and some can house technology that mimics cellphone towers in order to trick phones into relaying their signal to them. The cell technology is used only rarely, the FBI told the publication. 

The FBI program has come under scrutiny recently after Baltimore citizens noticed a suspicious pair of planes circling over the city following the protests over the death of Freddie Gray, an African-American man, in police custody. The FBI has said it provided aircraft to the Baltimore police to provide “aerial imagery of possible criminal activity.”

Grassley cited a Washington Post article that described the Baltimore incident as well as another report regarding flights seen over Minneapolis. 

The AP story tracked flights in the last few weeks over major cities, including Boston, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Houston, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Seattle and parts of Southern California. A document from 2010 cites at least 115 FBI planes used for surveillance, according to the report.   

The flights are used for specific ongoing investigations, and the FBI says they are not used for bulk collection, the AP reported. The government generally does not obtain warrants to record video of open spaces during the flights, but under a new policy, the FBI obtains court orders to use the cellphone technology. 

Lawmakers have previously pressed the Justice Department on the U.S. Marshals Service’s on their use of the cellphone technology on airplanes to scoop up information dating back to 2007.

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