FBI headquarters in Washington, DC. Image: Shutterstock
The FBI insists that it uses drone technology in the U.S. to conduct surveillance in “very limited circumstances.” What those particular circumstances are remain a mystery, because the Bureau refuses to identify instances where agents deployed unmanned aerial vehicles, even as far back as 2006.
The obscurity of the FBI drone missions, like that of other domestic law enforcement agencies, has frustrated advocates for transparency and privacy. In a letter to Senator Rand Paul in July 2013, the agency indicated that it had used drones a total of ten times since late 2006—eight criminal cases and two national security cases—and had authorized drone deployments in three additional cases, but did not actually fly them.
The only specific case where the FBI is willing to confirm using a drone was in February 2013, as surveillance support for a child kidnapping case in Alabama. After this and a previous flight in 2012, the agency found its drone missions "strikingly sucessful."
But new documents obtained by MuckRock as part of the Drone Census flesh out the timeline of FBI drone deployments in detail that was previously unavailable. While heavily redacted—censors deemed even basic facts that were already public about the Alabama case to be too sensitive for release, apparently—these flight orders, after action reviews and mission reports contain new details of FBI drone flights.
New details, summarized in the timeline above, include FBI drone flights as part of investigations into dog fighting operations and drug trafficking rings in 2011, as well as to track a top ten most wanted fugitive in 2012. The documents confirm nine flown missions (ones with after action reports or actual flight orders), as well as five drone mission approvals and one mission proposal, without any confirmation that the FBI actually deployed the drone as proposed.
Previously, the FBI had acknowledged that its first operational deployment of drones took place in October 2006:
These new documents include confirmations of another eight drone operations between February 2011 and February 2013, plus an additional five drone mission approvals and one proposal without confirmation that the FBI actually deployed the drone as proposed.
There was also an instance in April 2011 where FBI aviation managers rejected a drone flight request based on safety concerns:
The FBI redacted location and case details from these operational documents save for the dates, even for operations now three year. This has been the norm since a judge ordered the release of thousands of pages of documents on FBI drone deployments last year. FBI records officers have tried redacting information from documents already published in full online, and withheld virtually all UAV purchasing and invoice data.
But a handful of details escaped the censors in these latest documents.
In August 2011, the FBI's Field Flight Operations Unit approved drone surveillance to investigate a "large-scale dog fighting operation" at a redacted location, based on "a review of the case Agent's surveillance objectives and the nature of the terrain and airspace."
While there are no after-action documents to confirm the mission took place, FBI aviation managers suggested that agents ask the Federal Aviation Administration for "as large a COA [Certificate of Authorization] as possible" for this mission, suggesting that the drone was meant to survey a wide region.
A few months later, in November 2011, the FBI held a meeting at Quantico to consider flying drones as part of Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces (OCDETF) investigations of Mexican organizations:
Again, the FBI has not confirmed whether the proposed mission took place, or where.
In a mission hailed by agency officials as “a signal achievement in the history of the FBI,” the FBI drone team was deployed on short notice on May 9, 2012 as part of a kidnapping investigation. The mission was slated to “serve both as a tactical resource and a technology demonstration."
The after-action report hails the operation as a “strikingly successful” milestone, in that it "marked the first use of a UAS [unmanned aerial system] to pursue a top ten fugitive."
That same day, on May 9, 2012, the FBI added Adam Mayes to its Ten Most Wanted list. Mayes was wanted for the kidnap and murder of a Tennessee woman and one of her daughters, as well as for unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.
The FBI and state investigators found Mayes and the two remaining young girls the next day—the day after its drone team was scrambled to a kidnap-murder-unlawful-flight investigation—in heavy woods a few miles from Mayes’s home in Mississippi.
Media reports indicate that the long search was brought to an end after a Mississippi Highway Patrol officer “spotted a small blonde child peeking over a ridge.” No outlets reported the involvement of a drone in the manhunt. When law enforcement closed in, Mayes reportedly shot himself in the head, and the two girls were recovered without serious injuries.
While report details point to the involvement of drones in this manhunt, the FBI has refused to confirm whether its “signal achievement” centered around Mayes.
“Other than the hostage crisis site in Alabama, involving a kidnapper who abducted a boy and held him hostage in a bunker,” wrote FBI Special Agent Ann Todd in response to our request for confirmation, “we have not publicly identified specific cases where we have used unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).”
It’s not only the general public that the FBI keeps in the dark regarding drone deployments. Even the FAA and agency partners do not receive details.
An FBI dossier on drone use from April 2007 indicates that the FAA has urged the FBI to maintain "the same standards as manned fixed-wing aircraft." But it says the FBI may forgo notifying the FAA in "exigent circumstances":
In a July 30, 2012 email to the FAA and a redacted agency at the close of a drone operation at a redacted location for a redacted purpose, an FBI aviation administrator begged pardon for keeping its partners in the dark:
“While details of the mission intent must remained guarded for now,” the aviation manager wrote, “I hope to release full details in the future.” As with most of the FBI's drone deployments, those details have yet to see the light.