FBI Planes Are Watching From Above

COINTELPRO is the program the bureau ran from the ’50s to the ’70s to discredit and marginalize political organizations.

FBI documents obtained by CBS News reveal a widespread domestic spying and intelligence operation that kept thousands of ordinary American citizens under surveillance throughout the 1980s.

CBS News Anchor Dan Rather reports those being watched ranged from the SANE Nuclear freeze group to the senior Gray Panthers.

While antiwar protesters in the 1960s and ’70s were familiar with FBI surveillance, these newly discovered files show the FBI continued the controversial practice into 1993 and that it continues today.

It turns out the FBI is still spying on American citizens – for the U.S. government.

The main domestic threat, as the FBI sees it, is a lone wolf.

The bureau’s answer has been a strategy known variously as “preemption,” “prevention,” and “disruption”—identifying and neutralizing potential lone wolves before they move toward action. To that end, FBI agents and informants target not just active jihadists, but tens of thousands of law-abiding people, seeking to identify those disgruntled few who might participate in a plot given the means and the opportunity. And then, in case after case, the government provides the plot, the means, and the opportunity.

Here’s how it works: Informants report to their handlers on people who have, say, made statements sympathizing with terrorists. Those names are then cross-referenced with existing intelligence data, such as immigration and criminal records. FBI agents may then assign an undercover operative to approach the target by posing as a radical. Sometimes the operative will propose a plot, provide explosives, even lead the target in a fake oath to Al Qaeda. Once enough incriminating information has been gathered, there’s an arrest—and a press conference announcing another foiled plot.

If this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because such sting operations are a fixture in the headlines. Remember the Washington Metro bombing plot? The New York subway plot? The guys who planned to blow up the Sears Tower? The teenager seeking to bomb a Portland Christmas tree lighting? Each of those plots, and dozens more across the nation, was led by an FBI asset.

The FBI dispatched Azir to an Occupy Cleveland event on 21 October 2011, “based on an initial report of potential criminal activity and threats involving anarchists”. Terry Gilbert, a defense attorney, questions why the feds would send “a plant into a peaceful demonstration with a very ambiguous claim of criminal behavior. Once you get an informant in there, they have every motive to get a case. They are trying to make money or are working off a criminal case.”

A recent FBI document calls anarchists “criminals seeking an ideology to justify their activities”, warning they were engaged in “experimentation with new tactics, weapons … leading up to 2012 conventions”.

In the lead-up to the 2012 NATO Summit in Chicago, federal agents teamed with local police to find and interrogate suspected anarchists.

Newly released documents give hard evidence of an amorphous FBI investigation into the political lives of Occupy participants, one apparently animated by a belief that adherents to the political philosophy of anarchism are prone to criminal activity.

Following the protests of the May 2012 NATO Summit in Chicago, rumors and reports abounded of local police and FBI agents raiding apartments, infiltrating meeting places, and questioning activists —particularly anarchists, or those appearing to identify as anarchists—in the months leading up to the summit. A number of the firsthand accounts of encounters with the FBI and Chicago police came from Occupy Chicago activists, who housed out-of-town protesters and planned many of the weekend’s actions. The existence, if not the full extent, of the Chicago Police Department investigation was confirmed during the trial of three young summit protesters dubbed the NATO 3. In testimony from the undercover police behind the arrests, it emerged that plainclothes officers with the CPD Intelligence Unit had visited coffee shops, restaurants and concerts to try to find anarchists discussing the summit.

But the FBI, which has long regarded anarchists as a domestic terror threat and monitored events like the G8 and World Trade Organization meetings, has never confirmed investigating anarchists in advance of the NATO Summit. And a document trove released in December 2012 about FBI monitoring of Occupy protests around the country didn’t include any mention of Chicago.

Now, three FBI documents released in October 2014 in response to a Freedom of Information Act request —published here for the first time—indicate that the agency gathered intelligence about Occupy Chicago general assemblies, and coordinated with local police to find and interrogate suspected anarchists.

One of the documents, an October 2011 Potential Activity Alert titled “Anarchist Advocates Adopting the St. Paul Principles for Occupy Chicago,” suggests that law enforcement either electronically surveilled Occupy Chicago general assemblies (GAs) or had an informant there.

The third document, three unclassified pages of a 30-page report from March 2012, shows the level of cooperation between federal and local law enforcement agencies—even outside the city of Chicago —and offers further evidence of the FBI’s obsession with finding anarchists amid Occupy activists.

After the suburban Naperville Police arrested a man for “causing a disturbance” on an Amtrak train out of Chicago, they tipped off the FBI that the subject “was involved in Occupy Wall Street,” was heading to Nebraska “to meet up with other like minded anarchists,” and planned to return for the NATO Summit. Under later joint questioning by FBI agents and Amtrak investigators, the subject “refused to elaborate” on his plans and said he would not return for the summit.

As a whole, the documents also bring up issues around the FBI’s cooperation with FOIA requests. Open records advocates routinely criticize the FBI for its lengthy delays and outright denials in responding to FOIA requests. When investigative journalist Jason Leopold filed a FOIA request with the FBI in 2011 seeking documents about Occupy Wall Street, the agency said that none existed. In response to a FOIA request by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund later that year, the FBI released 112 pages of documents.

The Department of Homeland Security and the FBI have issued a bulletin to law enforcement warning that “anarchist extremists” may use IEDs, or Improvised Explosive Devices, at the Republican and Democrat national conventions.

“FBI and DHS assess with high confidence anarchist extremists will target… infrastructure with potentially significant impacts on public safety and transportation,” CNN reports.

“During past national and international political and economic events, anarchist extremists have blocked streets, intersections, and bridges to disrupt or impede local business operations and public transportation access and, in some instances have initiated violent confrontations with police,” the document states, according to CNN.

According to a recent report by The Intercept, Black Lives Matter has been under federal surveillance following Ferguson’s rash of riots and violent protests.

Utilizing the Freedom of Information Act, The Intercept was able to obtain documents detailing the months-long surveillance by the Department of Homeland Security. The Black Lives Matter surveillance documents were reminiscent of the FBI’s COINTELPRO days of Black Panther Party surveillance, producing “minute-by-minute reports on protestors’ movements in demonstrations.”

Federal surveillance of African-American organizations is not new.

The Department of Justice archives include surveillance of groups including the KKK and the NAACP, and maintained files on Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey. In a conversation with The Intercept, activist Maurice Mitchell identified surveillance as a federal fear tactic.

“When the police are videotaping you at a protest or pulling you over because you’re a well known activist — all of these techniques are designed to create a chilling effect on people’s organizing. This is no different.”

The Washington Post reports that the FBI has been obtaining and reviewing records of ordinary Americans in the name of the war on terror through the use of national security letters that gag the recipients.

“The FBI now issues more than 30,000 national security letters a year, according to government sources, a hundredfold increase over historic norms.

The letters — one of which can be used to sweep up the records of many people — are extending the bureau’s reach as never before into the telephone calls, correspondence and financial lives of ordinary Americans.”

“Issued by FBI field supervisors, national security letters do not need the imprimatur of a prosecutor, grand jury or judge. They receive no review after the fact by the Justice Department or Congress. The executive branch maintains only statistics, which are incomplete and confined to classified reports. Their are no examples in which the use of a national security letter helped disrupt a terrorist plot.”

The federal government illegally spies on Americans, every day.

FBI Aerial Surveillance
By Robert Snell, The Detroit News

An airplane linked to an FBI surveillance program that tracks alleged terrorists, spies and criminals has flown at least seven times over Metro Detroit, including two lengthy flights over the Dearborn area last weekend, according to public records.

The 2010 single-engine Cessna Skylane is part of a small air force operated by the FBI that uses high-tech cameras and sometimes cellphone surveillance technology. An Associated Press investigation in June revealed that the FBI had flown more than 100 flights in 11 states over a 30-day period.

Flight data reviewed by The Detroit News shows increased flights over Metro Detroit in the past week with prolonged surveillance over Dearborn, a city heavily populated by Muslims and Middle Eastern residents. In all, the FBI surveillance plane has flown over Metro Detroit seven times since Friday, according to the website FlightRadar24.com.

The flights raise questions about whether the FBI’s investigation is terror-related. It also raises concerns about privacy violations because of surveillance technology that often does not require a judge’s approval.

“There may be a concern about unjust, persistent surveillance of Muslim communities in Michigan that already have reasons to be uncomfortable with some police tactics,” said Nathan Freed Wessler, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union’s speech, privacy and technology project in New York.

“That community is owed a full and transparent explanation of what law enforcement is doing to ensure this was not some mass surveillance effort of an already targeted community.”

The flights have so concerned Muslim community activist Dawud Walid that he plans to complain this week to the House Judiciary Committee.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit and the FBI declined comment about the recent flights.

The 2010 Cessna is registered to a company called OTV Leasing of Bristow, Va. The registration, like other aircraft included in the AP investigation, is linked to a bank of post office boxes in Bristow.

OTV Leasing was among at least 13 fake companies used by the FBI that were identified during the AP investigation.

The chief executive of OTV Leasing is listed on aircraft records as Robert Lindley. The AP reported that Lindley is listed as CEO of several other front companies, and has at least three distinct signatures on aircraft records. The FBI did not disclose to the AP whether Lindley was a U.S. government employee; the news agency could not reach him for comment.

In a 30-day period, an AP review found, the FBI flew above more than 30 cities in 11 states, including parts of Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Minneapolis, Phoenix and Seattle, as well as southern California.

The FBI told Congress in 2010 it had at least 115 planes.

The FBI’s aviation program is not classified and is used to follow terrorists, spies and criminals, FBI Deputy Director said in a statement following the AP investigation.

According to the AP probe, the planes are equipped with high-tech cameras and, in rare instances, technology that allows the FBI to track thousands of cellphones.

The FBI said the aircraft are not equipped, designed or used for bulk collection or mass surveillance. Neither are they routinely equipped with technology that mimics cell towers and lets the FBI locate and intercept communications from cell phones and wireless devices.

Flights in Dearborn fit a pattern used by the FBI in other cities, including in May in Baltimore following riots after the death of a black man, Freddie Gray, who was injured while in police custody.

The Cessna flew over the Dearborn area in slow-speed, counterclockwise orbits several miles wide and about one mile above the ground.

The Cessna’s orbits were nearly identical, bordered by Michigan Avenue to the north, Telegraph Road to the west, Ecorse

Road to the south and Greenfield Road to the east.

Each night, the Cessna made 19 nearly identical loops over the Dearborn area and neighboring communities, including parts of Dearborn Heights, Allen Park, Taylor and Melvindale.

Focus of surveillance

The center of the surveillance area is near the Dearborn Public Schools building on Audette, east of West Outer Drive.

At 5:51 p.m. Saturday, the four-seat Cessna, white with a splash of red on the nose and tail, first appeared on radar flying over a neighborhood of $300,000 homes in Harrison Township, north of Metro Parkway in Macomb County.

The plane zigzagged over the community and neighboring Clinton Township before flying south and cutting west across Hamtramck and Detroit.

By 7:32 p.m., the Cessna was in Dearborn.

The plane spent more than 90 minutes making 19 loops, covering an area that includes several landmarks, including Greenfield Village, Ford Motor Co.’s Dearborn Development Center, Edsel Ford High School and the American Muslim Center on West Outer Drive.

The FBI did not alert Dearborn Police before, or after, the flights.

See Maps Showing Where FBI Planes Are Watching From Above By Peter Aldhous and Charles Seife

Each weekday, dozens of U.S. government aircraft take to the skies and slowly circle over American cities. Piloted by agents of the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the planes are fitted with high-resolution video cameras, often working with “augmented reality” software that can superimpose onto the video images everything from street and business names to the owners of individual homes. At least a few planes have carried devices that can track the cell phones of people below. Most of the aircraft are small, flying a mile or so above ground, and many use exhaust mufflers to mute their engines — making them hard to detect by the people they’re spying on.

The government’s airborne surveillance has received little public scrutiny — until now. BuzzFeed News has assembled an unprecedented picture of the operation’s scale and sweep by analyzing aircraft location data collected by the flight-tracking website Flightradar24 from mid-August to the end of December last year, identifying about 200 federal aircraft. Day after day, dozens of these planes circled above cities across the nation.

The FBI and the DHS would not discuss the reasons for individual flights but told BuzzFeed News that their planes are not conducting mass surveillance.

The DHS said that its aircraft were involved with securing the nation’s borders, as well as targeting drug smuggling and human trafficking, and may also be used to support investigations by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. The FBI said that its planes are only used to target suspects in specific investigations of serious crimes, pointing to a statement issued in June 2015, after reporters and lawmakers started asking questions about FBI surveillance flights.

“It should come as no surprise that the FBI uses planes to follow terrorists, spies, and serious criminals,” said FBI Deputy Director Mark Giuliano, in that statement. “We have an obligation to follow those people who want to hurt our country and its citizens, and we will continue to do so.”

But most of these government planes took the weekends off. The BuzzFeed News analysis found that surveillance flight time dropped more than 70% on Saturdays, Sundays, and federal holidays.

“The fact that they are mostly not flying on weekends suggests these are relatively run-of-the-mill investigations,” Nathan Freed Wessler, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Project on Speech, Privacy, and Technology, told BuzzFeed News.

The government’s aerial surveillance programs deserve scrutiny by the Supreme Court, said Adam Bates, a policy analyst with the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C. “It’s very difficult to know, because these are very secretive programs, exactly what information they’re collecting and what they’re doing with it,” Bates told BuzzFeed News.

The BuzzFeed News analysis also revealed how the government responded to the mass shooting last December in San Bernardino, California.

In the weeks leading up to the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11, nearby neighborhoods in and around Los Angeles were watched intensively by FBI aircraft. But San Bernardino itself was apparently ignored: Our data shows no FBI surveillance flights over the city.

That changed abruptly after the attack on the morning of Dec. 2. Within 90 minutes, two planes — one an FBI Cessna, the other a DHS Pilatus PC-12 surveillance aircraft — were circling the scene. Later that afternoon, the FBI plane flew around the home of the two shooters, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik.

Farook attended the nearby Dar Al Uloom Al-Islamiyah of America mosque. And starting Dec. 3, FBI planes traced circles with the mosque near their center. Three different FBI planes flew around the mosque, some circling for more than three hours at a time. There were flights on each day in the week after the attack — except for Saturday and Sunday.

The FBI told BuzzFeed News that it cannot launch investigations based on race, ethnicity, or religion — surveillance means that individual criminal suspects are being watched, not groups of people.

But Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, an umbrella organization representing the region’s mosques and Islamic centers, told BuzzFeed News that he is alarmed that the FBI’s knee-jerk reaction to the San Bernardino massacre seems to have been to send its planes to watch the Dar Al Uloom mosque.

“That is extremely troubling, and reconfirms the fears that we continue to talk about,” Syed said. “I don’t know that they have ever done surveillance of churches or synagogues when people of those traditions have committed acts of criminality.”

In the months before the San Bernardino attack, some of the government’s surveillance planes circled over other neighborhoods with large Muslim populations. In the San Francisco Bay Area, for instance, there was a clear circle above Little Kabul in Fremont, home to the largest concentration of ethnic Afghans in the nation. The main concentrations of surveillance in Minneapolis, meanwhile, were above an area known as Little Mogadishu for its large Somali population.

But these neighborhoods did not come under heightened aerial scrutiny after the terrorist mayhem in Paris on Nov. 13, nor after San Bernardino. And on Thanksgiving Day, less than two weeks after the Paris attacks, with the nation under a State Department–issued global terrorism alert, federal surveillance planes almost entirely stopped flying, only to resume once the holiday was over.

The BuzzFeed News analysis almost certainly underestimates the scope of surveillance by federal aircraft. Some two dozen planes operated by the FBI and more than 130 registered to the DHS never appeared on Flightradar24, suggesting that some surveillance planes may be hidden from public view on plane-tracking websites. (See here for details on the BuzzFeed News analysis.)

FBI planes have also on occasion been used to support local law enforcement. In April 2015, after riots broke out in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, FBI planes were sent to monitor the situation, documents obtained by the ACLU show. FBI Director James Comey told Congress that the agency’s aircraft also flew over Ferguson, Missouri, in the summer of 2014, after a local police officer shot Michael Brown.

Related:
Can Michael Brown get a fair trial?

Responding to the BuzzFeed News analysis, FBI spokesman Christopher Allen said that planes may circle over cities while waiting for a suspect to emerge from a building. In some cases, the BuzzFeed News analysis showed that FBI aircraft indeed seemed to be following a vehicle from place to place, pausing to circle at each stop. Other flights, however, circled a single location for several hours, and then returned to their airfields.

As to the big drop-off in flights on the weekends, Allen told BuzzFeed News that the agency’s surveillance depends on the needs of individual investigations.

“If we need it, it’s going to happen,” Allen said. The targets of surveillance may simply be less active on the weekends, he said. And because traffic is lighter, he added, it’s easier for the FBI to follow suspects on the ground instead of by air.

That explanation did not convince James Wedick, a former FBI agent based near Sacramento, California.

“That’s painful,” Wedick told BuzzFeed News. He suspects that the weekend dip reflects the controversial practice of using undercover agents and informants to entice suspects into joining fake terrorist plots devised by the FBI. “The FBI today is better able to control investigations, enabling agents to orchestrate events when more resources were available,” Wedick said.

In June of last year, the Associated Press reported that it had linked more than 50 planes, mostly small Cessna Skylane 182 aircraft, to 13 fake companies created as fronts for the FBI. Also using Flightradar24, AP reporters tracked more than 100 flights in 11 states over the course of a month.

BuzzFeed News extended the list of FBI front companies, drawing from other sources that have investigated the agency’s airborne operations. We then looked for planes registered to these front companies in data provided by Flightradar24. (Its data comes from radio signals broadcast by transponders that reveal planes’ locations and identifying information, picked up by receivers on the ground that are hosted by volunteers across the country.)

We detected nearly 100 FBI fixed-wing planes, mostly small Cessnas, plus about a dozen helicopters. Collectively, they made more than 1,950 flights over our four-month-plus observation period. The aircraft frequently circled or hovered around specific locations, often for several hours in the daytime over urban areas.

We also tracked more than 90 aircraft, about two-thirds of them helicopters, that were registered to the DHS, which is responsible for border protection, customs, and immigration. Not surprisingly, these planes were especially active around border towns such as McAllen, Texas, which faces the Mexican city of Reynosa across the Rio Grande.

But the DHS’s airborne operations also extended far into the U.S. interior. And over some cities, notably Los Angeles, its aircraft seemed to circle around particular locations, behaving like those in the FBI’s fleet.

The DHS would not comment on flights over specific cities, but confirmed that its planes regularly support other law enforcement agencies, including the FBI.

DHS spokesman Carlos Lazo told BuzzFeed News by email that its planes are mainly used to combat the illegal drug trade, human trafficking, and violent crime. In 2015, he said, DHS aerial surveillance missions supported investigations that “resulted in 706 arrests including violent criminals and sex traffickers, the seizure of more than 10,000 lbs of cocaine, 342 lbs of heroin, more than 1,000 lbs of methamphetamine, 350 weapons, and $24 million in cash.”

Regulations require that a plane’s owners submit documents to the Federal Aviation Administration describing modifications that might affect a plane’s airworthiness, and BuzzFeed News obtained this paperwork for about 130 of the planes identified in our analysis — giving a strong sense of what the aircraft are capable of.

Many FBI Cessnas, for example, are fitted with exhaust mufflers to reduce engine noise. FBI and DHS aircraft carry sophisticated camera systems in steerable mounts that can provide conventional video, night vision, and infrared thermal imaging. These include Talon devices, manufactured by FLIR Systems of Wilsonville, Oregon. The company’s website boasts that these devices “deliver high-resolution imagery day or night.”

On FBI planes, cameras are typically paired with augmented reality systems, which superimpose a variety of information over the video, and can embed the feed from a camera into a wider scene built up from stored satellite images.

This promotional video from Churchill Navigation of Boulder, Colorado, whose systems are installed on FBI surveillance aircraft, explains some of their capabilities.

Over the past few years, news organizations and advocacy groups have also accumulated evidence that some government surveillance planes can carry equipment to track cell phones on the ground.

Federal and local law enforcement agencies are known to use devices called cell-site simulators that mimic cell phone towers, emitting powerful signals that trick people’s phones into connecting to them as if they were the real thing. Sometimes called “Stingrays” for the brand name of one popular model, these devices read the unique identification codes of the cell phones that connect to them, and so can be used to track people — even if they are indoors, in dense crowds, or otherwise hidden from view.

Official records indicate that both the DHS and the FBI can connect to cell phones from the air. Documents obtained by Chris Soghoian, principal technologist with the ACLU’s Project on Speech, Privacy, and Technology, show that in 2010 the DHS spent almost $190,000 under a contract that included the purchase of cell-site simulators and an “airborne flight kit” for a Stingray device — consisting of “specialized antennas, antenna mounts, cables and power connections.” The contract also covered training for up to four DHS Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to be instructed on how to operate Stingrays from an aircraft.

Other government spending records, reviewed by BuzzFeed News, show that in 2008 the FBI purchased a Stingray airborne kit for $55,000.

And in March, the San Francisco–based Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) released a series of documents, obtained through a Freedom of Information lawsuit, in which FBI officials discussed the use of cell-site simulators from aircraft. The documents reveal that the agency was unsure how many times the devices had been used, when pressed for information by the Senate judiciary committee.

“I cannot say for certain that the mission numbers are 100% accurate,” one official wrote, noting that so far, five flights involving Stingrays had been identified.

The FBI told BuzzFeed News that cell-site simulators are used very rarely, and only to track suspects. Calls are not intercepted, and personal data is not captured, Allen said.

The DHS declined to comment on how often it used the devices from the air, but Lazo, the department’s spokesman, said the technology provides “invaluable assistance” in hunting down criminal suspects. “Cell-site simulators used by DHS are not used to collect the contents of any communication, including any data contained on the phone itself,” he added.

Still, tracking the movements of specific criminal suspects may entail connecting to the phones of thousands of people who just happen to be nearby. And although government policies say that information about nontarget phones should be quickly discarded, privacy advocates remain concerned about cell-site simulators, which may not require a warrant in emergency situations.

“In our opinion, any time Stingrays or the like are used, they need to have a warrant based on probable cause,” Nate Cardozo, senior staff attorney with the EFF, told BuzzFeed News.

One of the most sensitive questions surrounding the government’s surveillance flights is whether Muslims are being disproportionately targeted.

Even before San Bernardino, Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump was calling for surveillance of certain mosques. And in the wake of the bombings in Brussels in March, rival Ted Cruz said that surveillance in Muslim neighborhoods should be intensified.

BuzzFeed News mapped mosques and Islamic centers throughout the nation, as detailed in a database maintained by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research in Connecticut. Some mosques were at the center of the circles traced by FBI planes, but BuzzFeed News could see no clear pattern indicating widespread surveillance of mosques.

Privacy advocates argue that all of the flights should be subjected to greater official scrutiny, to ensure that a balance is being struck between effective law enforcement and privacy.

“When people think of surveillance, they think of the NSA, or of specific people being tracked, or mosques being infiltrated,” Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York, told BuzzFeed News. “They aren’t necessarily thinking about planes circling overhead of American cities and doing god knows what. It’s important for people to be aware.”

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