Why Won’t the FBI Tell the Public About its Drone Program?
Today we’re publishing—for the first time—the FBI’s drone licenses and supporting records for the last several years. Unfortunately, to say that the FBI has been less than forthcoming with these records would be a gross understatement.
Just yesterday, Wired broke the story that the FBI has been using drones to surveil Americans. Wired noted that, during an FBI oversight hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, FBI Director Robert Mueller let slip that the FBI flies surveillance drones on American soil. Mueller tried to reassure the senators that FBI’s drone program “is very narrowly focused on particularized cases and particularized leads.” However, there’s no way to check the Director on these statements, given the Bureau’s extreme lack of transparency about its program.
EFF received these records as a result of our Freedom of Information lawsuit against the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for the licenses the FAA issues to all public entities wishing to fly drones in the national airspace. As detailed in prior posts and on our drone map, we have already received tens of thousands of pages of valuable information about local, state and federal agencies’ drone flights.
However, unlike other federal agencies, including the US Air Force, the Bureau has withheld almost all information within its documents—even including the period of time for which the FAA’s Certificates of Authorization (COAs) were issued. As you can see from the two examples linked below—the first from the Air Force and the second from the FBI—the FBI is withholding information, including something as basic as the city and state of the Bureau’s point of contact, that could in no way be expected to risk circumvention of the law (the applicable test under FOIA, 5 U.S.C. § 552 (b)(7)(E)).
The FBI has even withheld information from standard documents that all agencies file with the FAA to support their COA applications, many of which come directly from the drone manufacturer. (Compare, for example, the Air Force’s “LOST_LINK_MISSION” or “AIRCRAFT_SYSTEM” documents with the FBI’s versions of the same documents.) This is especially frustrating, given that, as the Washington Post noticed, at least one of the drones the FBI is flying is a Puma. This small drone, designed by Aerovironment, is also flown by the Air Force. And the Air Force has already released in full, the system information for the drone—including specifications, limitations, operating frequencies and camera information.
One interesting fact is that the Bureau has withheld most of the records under several statutes and regulations related to the arms exports and the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) (see statutes and regulations here, here, and here.) This is surprising because, although ITAR does apply explicitly to drones, not even the US Military has claimed these statutes in withholding information from its drone records.
Given the FBI’s past abuses and the information recently revealed about how the Bureau exploits specious interpretations of federal law to help out the NSA’s spying program, we have good reason to be concerned about the FBI’s lack of transparency here. We hope Senator Feinstein will follow up on her concerns about the FBI’s apparent lack of “strictures” in place to protect Americans’ privacy in connection to FBI drone use and demand a full accounting of how, when, where and why the Bureau has been using drones to monitor the public.