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    Eighteen Years After First Experiments, FBI Makes New Push to Deploy Drones Across US

    Written by

    Shawn Musgrave

    Judge orders release of hundreds of heavily-redacted documents

    The FBI has been contemplating using aerial surveillance drones since 1995, and are investing heavily in the technology as a cheap and stealthy alternative to manned surveillance aircraft. A new set of documents released by the Bureau—400 heavily-redacted pages of emails, memos and invoices—sheds new light on the deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles for federal investigations.

    The Bureau has also sought new authority from the FAA, the agency which regulates unmanned aerial flights over the U.S., to "greatly expand the FBI’s potential deployment scenarios for UAVs.”

    On October 30, the U.S. District Court in D.C. ordered the FBI to release its drone documents on a rolling basis to Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington (CREW), which had submitted a Freedom of Information Act request in June. While MuckRock and Motherboard’s own requests to the FBI as part of the Drone Census are still in process (and the Bureau is hardly eager to release anything), the 431 pages of documents offer a more authoritative and exhaustive view of the Bureau’s investigations into and deployments of drone technology than ever before.

    Presentation slides from the FBI’s Operational Technology Division indicates that the agency’s interest in drones dates back to 1995, when researchers “experimented with model helicopters and model planes but discarded the program as it did not prove to be a useful surveillance tool.”

    The FBI’s Technical Response Team researched UAVs more aggressively beginning in 2003, but a white paper explains that, before 2005, “UAVs available were either too large or too expensive to meet FBI requirements.”

    Invoices confirm that the FBI made its first drone purchase in September 2005. The Justice Department Inspector General reported in September that the FBI had spent $3 million on drone technology, maintenance and software through May 2013, but all quantities, model numbers and dollar amounts are redacted in the released purchase documents.

    March 2013 emails indicate that the FBI has seen an “increase in funding” due to a “need for more UAVs.”

    Like all government agencies, the FBI must apply for authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration prior to deploying drones. While the FAA so far has released authorization documents back to 2009, an email from the chief of the Tracking Technology Unit claims that the Bureau’s “first operational deployment was in October 2006.”

     

    In a July letter to Rand Paul, the FBI indicated that it had used drones in ten operations since 2006, and that all applications had been approved by the FAA. The FAA has begun releasing its authorization documents on a rolling basis after losing its own lawsuits to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

    As of a May 2011 newsletter, the FBI’s UAV Program was “mission ready and fully operational.” In an email that July, the program manager all but begged agents across the country to request drone backup.

    “The time is now here and we are offering these services,” the agent wrote to all field office administrators. “We have available several small Unmanned Aerial Systems available for deployment.”

    What's remains murky is precisely what kind of drones they have, the funding source for their drone purchases, and in what ways the FBI's program has interacted with other federal and local law enforcement agencies.

    While it's well-established that Customs and Border Protection, a component of the Department of Homeland Security, flies unarmed Predator drones along the border, the FBI refuses to detail its the circumstances of their own drone use or the number of agents trained to operate them.

    Officials at the FBI have previously indicated the Bureau has relied on drones in cases where agents' lives are at stake. In February 2011, the LA Times reported that the FBI used a Department of Homeland Security Predator drone based in Grand Forks, N.D., to collect aerial images of the house of Martin Luther King Jr. Day bomber Kevin W. Harpham, which it used to plan the raid that captured him on March 9, 2011. The Bureau also used a drone during an Alabama hostage incident earlier this year.

    In a 35-page report released in September by the Justice Department's inspector general, auditors revealed that the U.S. Marshals Service and the Drug Enforcement Administration have also purchased and tested drones but decided not to deploy them actively. The Justice Department has also awarded at least $1.2 million to local police departments to purchase small drones, said the report. While these drones have not been used in police actions, the auditors found that the Justice Dept. had failed to track exactly how that drone procurement money was spent. 

    Above, former FBI director Robert Mueller testifying in a Congressional oversight hearing in July

    Auditors also found that the FBI had not addressed the danger of violating privacy rights in its use of drones, which have set off alarms among privacy advocates across the country, and led various municipalities to restrict their use. The report said that officials at the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives told auditors that there was "no need" to write new privacy guidelines. During an oversight hearing over the summer, the Bureau's former director Robert Mueller said the FBI was in the "initial stages" of writing privacy policies.

    FAA hurdles

    According to the documents, the primary roadblock holding back the FBI’s drone program appears to be FAA approval, but the Bureau is working to eliminate obstacles to wider deployment. While current FAA rules authorize drone flights over particular geographic areas, the FBI has launched a coordinated effort with other law enforcement agencies to set up a blanket approval in domestic airspace, described as a “nationwide, standing Certificate of Authorization for federal law enforcement use, which will greatly expand the FBI’s potential deployment scenarios for UAVs.”

    In October, the FBI reported to the court that it had found approximately 2,750 pages of documents on its drone fleet. CREW has indicated that it intends to appeal the FBI’s heavy-handed redaction of all released documents.

    Motherboard and MuckRock are continuing to sift through this first release for more specifics on the FBI’s use of drones, including its policies around using unmanned aerial surveillance for tactical missions.

    The FBI sent its first batch on November 27, which CREW has put online in full.

    Before this release, the only timelines of FBI drone use have been cobbled together from anonymous official statements, Director Robert Mueller’s vague testimony, responses to Senator Rand Paul and reports from Justice Department Inspector General and various federal research offices.

    See more from the Motherboard / MuckRock Drone Census

    Top photo: nodeworx / Flickr

    Topics: FBI, drones, surveillance, FOIA, drone, drone on, UAV, The Drone Census

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