WASHINGTON - The FBI has a fleet of
aircraft, some equipped with night surveillance and
eavesdropping equipment, flying America's skies to track and
collect intelligence from suspected terrorists.
The FBI will not provide exact figures on
the planes and helicopters, but more than 80 are in the skies.
There are several planes, known as "Nightstalkers," equipped
with infrared devices that allow agents to track people and
vehicles in the dark.
Other aircraft are outfitted with
electronic surveillance equipment so agents can pursue
listening devices placed in cars, in buildings and even along
streets, or listen to cell phone calls. Still others fly
photography missions, although officials would not describe
The FBI, which has made
counterterror its top priority since Sept. 11, 2001, has
sharply increased its use of aircraft.
"You want to
watch activity, and you want to do it discreetly. You don't
want to be sitting around in cars," said Weldon Kennedy, a
former FBI deputy director who retired in 1997 after 33 years
with the bureau. "Aviation is one way to do that. You don't
need to get close to that person at all."
say the surveillance technology further blurs the boundaries
on domestic spying. They point to a 2001 case in which the
Supreme Court found police had engaged in an unreasonable
search by using thermal imaging equipment to detect heat lamps
used to grow marijuana plants indoors.
"The cop on the
beat now has Superman's X-ray eyes," said Barry Steinhardt,
director of the technology and liberty program at the American
Civil Liberties Union. "We need to fundamentally rethink what
is a reasonable expectation of privacy."
All 56 FBI
field offices have access to aircraft, piloted by FBI agents
who have other investigative duties as well.
aircraft are propeller-driven civilian models, favored for
their relatively slow speed and unobtrusive
Legally, no warrants are necessary for the
FBI to track cars or people from the air. Law enforcement
officials need warrants to search homes or to plant listening
devices or monitor cell phone calls - and that includes when
the listener is flying in an airplane.
A senior FBI
official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the FBI
does not do flyovers to listen to telephone calls and gather
electronic data from random citizens in hopes the data will
provide leads. Rather, the planes are used to follow specific
individuals, some of whom may already have been bugged or for
whom the FBI has a warrant to listen to cell phone
Still, the idea of an FBI air force gives at
least some people pause.
The FBI will not disclose
where the planes are being used. This month, however, in the
college town of Bloomington, Ind., residents spotted a Cessna
aircraft flying overhead at roughly the same times every day
for more than a week.
After first issuing denials,
local FBI agents admitted it was their plane, involved in a
FBI officials also were quick
to say it was not doing electronic
"There should be no concern that the
aircraft is doing anything other than assisting with physical
surveillance," said FBI agent James Davis.
The FBI has
been using airplanes since 1938, when an agent in a Stinson
monoplane helped stop an extortion attempt that involved a
payoff package thrown from a moving passenger train. The first
major deployment happened in 1975 during the investigation of
the killings of two FBI agents at the sprawling Pine Ridge
Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
The program has
been particularly useful in investigations of organized crime
and drug trafficking. Mobsters who suspected their homes and
telephones were bugged frequently held meetings in moving
cars, not realizing that bugs also were placed there and were
being monitored from the air.
Aircraft are now seen as
ideal in the FBI's domestic war on terror. FBI Director Robert
Mueller said last year there was a 60 percent increase in
field office requests for airplanes in the year after the
Sept. 11 attacks, with almost 90 percent of air missions now
dedicated to surveillance.
"You don't have a criminal
case. You don't necessarily have a terrorism case. You want to
know what they are doing, who their associates are, who they
are meeting with," retired agent Kennedy said. "Surveillance
is going to have a pretty big role in that."
approved this year a $20 million increase in the FBI's
aviation budget but denied a request for two new Black Hawk
helicopters. It also ordered the bureau to develop a master
plan for its aviation program.
The FBI also can request
aviation help from the Defense Department. That can involve a
great deal of bureaucracy and care, however, to ensure the
military does not violate laws preventing them from doing law
enforcement work within the United States.
the other opinions I agree. This is a phony war.
Misdirection and bogus patriotisim. Un - patriot
act II is not to thwart terrorisim it is an act of
terrorisim against the free people of the U.S.
When your hear code words such as terrorist
consider this terroist means you the American who
does not roll over and submit to the tyranny
conducted by the current administration. READ
patriot act II Seig heil!!!! What about china and
other? Why must we be the one being watched? Why
are the boaders no SHUT DOWN? WELL... I am an
American a VETEREN of 7 years I vote And I am
painfully aware that we now do live in a police
like to ask the FBI why they have no problem
watching our every move while the borders are left
wide open. I donít like helicopters flying over my
house with equipment that look through roofs with
rookie perverted government employees in them. If
good people continue to do nothing we will surely
be a bunch of slaves. Wake up America, this is a
phony war, don't fall for it. This is good cop bad
cop between the UN and our out of control puppet
politicians. This is not my government, but you
dare not criticize them in any way or youíre not a
patriot. Go look at the Patriot act. Patriot II is
on itís way.