WASHINGTON - The FBI is operating a small air force with scores of low-flying planes across the country using video and sometimes cellphone surveillance technology - all hidden behind fictitious companies that are fronts for the government, the Associated Press has learned.
The surveillance equipment is generally used without a judge's approval, and the FBI says the flights are used for specific investigations. The agency says it uses front companies to protect the safety of the pilots and aircraft, shielding their identities from would-be suspects on the ground.
In a recent 30-day period, an AP review found, the FBI flew above more than 30 cities in 11 states across the country, including parts of Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Seattle, and Southern California.
Aerial surveillance represents a changing frontier for law enforcement, providing what the government maintains is an important tool for investigations. But the program raises questions as new technologies pose intrusive opportunities for government spying.
U.S. law enforcement officials confirmed for the first time the wide-scale use of the aircraft, which the AP traced to at least 13 fake companies registered to post office boxes in Bristow, Virginia. Those include FVX Research, KQM Aviation, NBR Aviation and PXW Services.
"The FBI's aviation program is not secret," spokesman Christopher Allen said in a statement. "Specific aircraft and their capabilities are protected for operational security purposes.'' Allen added the FBI's planes "are not equipped, designed or used for bulk collection activities or mass surveillance.''
The FBI does occasionally help local police with aerial support, such as during the recent disturbance in Baltimore that followed the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who sustained grievous injuries while in police custody. Those types of requests are reviewed by senior FBI officials.
The FBI does not generally obtain warrants to record video of people moving outside in the open. But it says it needs warrants to help identify potentially thousands of cellphones below - using what are known as cell-site simulators - even if a user is not making a call or in public. Officials said that practice, which mimics cell towers to get phones to reveal basic subscriber information, is rare.
An FBI spokesman said the flights comply with agency rules, although details are heavily redacted in publicly available documents that discuss limitations and justifications for such surveillance.
"It's important that federal law enforcement personnel have the tools they need to find and catch criminals,'' said Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. "But whenever an operation may also monitor the activities of Americans who are not the intended target, we must make darn sure that safeguards are in place to protect the civil liberties of innocent Americans.''
Details about the flights come as the Justice Department seeks to navigate privacy concerns arising from aerial surveillance by unmanned aircrafts, or drones. The AP traced at least 50 aircraft back to the FBI, and the agency told Congress in 2010 it had at least 115 planes.
The FBI asked the AP not to disclose the names of the fake companies it uncovered, saying that would saddle taxpayers with the expense of creating new cover companies to shield the government's involvement, and could endanger the planes and the surveillance missions. The AP declined the FBI's request because the companies' names - as well as common addresses linked to the Justice Department - are listed on public documents and in government databases.
Justice Department lawyers approved the decision to create fictitious companies to protect the flights' operational security, and the Federal Aviation Administration was aware of the practice, officials said. The FBI has been careful not to reveal its surveillance flights in court documents.
After the Washington Post revealed flights by two planes circling over Baltimore in early May, the AP began analyzing the mysterious owners behind planes that shared similar addresses and flight patterns.
Independent journalists also have recently cited companies traced to post office boxes in Virginia, including one shared with the Justice Department.
The AP had analyzed similar data from the website FlightRadar24.com, while also drawing upon aircraft registration documents, business records and interviews with U.S. officials to understand the scope of the government's operations.
A Justice Department memo last month expressly barred its component law enforcement agencies from using unmanned drones "solely for the purpose of monitoring activities protected by the First Amendment'' and said they are to be used only in connection with authorized investigations and activities.