Federal authorities admitted Wednesday to using aircraft for surveillance flights over Baltimore, during the riots, after concerned citizens who observed the craft set off a social media firestorm earlier this week.
“The aircraft were specifically used to assist in providing high-altitude observation of potential criminal activity to enable rapid response by police officers on the ground,” FBI spokeswoman Amy Thoreson said. “The FBI aircraft were not there to monitor lawfully protected First Amendment activity.”
The unusual activity was spotted in the sky by citizens several days last week then on Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the Justice Department and the Federal Aviation Administration seeking more details about the flights of the planes.
“These are not your parents’ surveillance aircraft,” said ACLU’s Jay Stanley. “Today, planes can carry new surveillance technologies, like cellphone trackers and high-resolution cameras that can follow the movements of many people at once. These are not the kinds of things that law enforcement should be using in secret.”
As a result of a citizen and journalist investigation, three planes were determined to have flown recurring reconnaissance patterns over the city for extended periods of time. Two of the planes, a Cessna 182 and Cessna 206 are models traditionally sold to law enforcement under the brand name Cessna Enforcer.
Thoreson did not confirm that the three planes identified were provided by the FBI, but she did say the aircraft the FBI provided were used to capture images and help coordinate the police response to unrest in the city.
Civil liberties advocates are particularly concerned that aircraft could offer a powerful platform for controversial new technology that captures information about cellphones.
That tool, known as a “stingray,” mimics a cell tower in order to trick cellphones in the area to connect to it – including those of law-abiding citizens.
Baltimore police recently acknowledged using a stingray thousands of times. The Wall Street Journal has also reported that U.S. marshals have a version mounted on aircraft.
There is no indication that the flights over Baltimore were monitoring cellphone information, but the FBI has a rich history of abuses regarding the surveillance of activity covered under the First Amendment.
Cointelpro was a series of covert, and at times illegal, projects conducted by the FBI aimed at surveying, infiltrating, discrediting, and disrupting domestic political organizations between 1956 and 1971.
The counter intelligence measures targeted the personal communications of leading Americans who criticized the Vietnam War, including Senators, civil rights leaders, journalists, and athletes.
The FBI’s stated motivation was “protecting national security, preventing violence, and maintaining the existing social and political order.”
Its hard to imagine these operations ever stopped or didn’t continue under a different name, but since 9/11, the FBI has been granted by Congress and assumed for itself the power to investigate and collect data about millions of people.
A report released in 2013 by the American Civil Liberties Union provides a comprehensive accounting of the bureau’s expanded post-9/11 investigative and intelligence collection authorities, their impact on civil liberties in the United States, and the FBI’s evasion of oversight that enables abuses to continue.
“Rather than aiding its terrorism prevention efforts, the FBI’s expanded investigative and intelligence powers have overwhelmed agents with a flood of irrelevant information and false alarms,” said Michael German, senior policy counsel at the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office. “Instead of funding these ineffective and suspicionless intelligence collection programs, Congress should examine whether American communities could be made safer overall by spending that money to help state and local police solve violent crime.”
Entitled, “Unleashed and Unaccountable: The FBI’s Unchecked Abuse of Authority,” the first half of the report documents how Congress, the attorney general, and the White House provided the FBI with new authorities in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 in an effort to prevent another terrorist attack inside the United States.
With the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act in 2001 and the FISA Amendments Act in 2008, Congress provided the FBI with increasingly powerful tools that the bureau has used in violation of the First and Fourth Amendments, according to the ACLU report.