watch the skies
- When I mentioned to a friend in North Carolina that I had noticed many
helicopters and light propeller aircraft overhead, she sent me the following
newspaper clipping. It is a bit dated, but it contains some useful
information. The article appeared on page A7 of the Saturday 15 March 2003
edition of <The News and Observer> and is credited to Curt Anderson of the
PLANES PLAY KEY ROLE IN FBI WORK
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 on suspected terrorists and other criminals.
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 precise capabilities.
The FBI, which has made counterterror its top priority since September 11th,
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
Some critics say the surveillance technology further blurs the boundaries of
domestic spying. They point to a 2001 case in which the Supreme Court found
police had engaged in an unreasonably 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. Most aircraft are propeller-
driven civilian models, favored for their relatively slow speed and
Legally, no warrants are necessary for the FBI to track cars or people from
the air. Law enforcement officials need warrents to search homes or 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 whome may already have been
bugged or for whom the FBI has a warrant to listen to cell phone calls.
Still, the idea of an FBI air force gives some people pause.
The FBI will not disclose where the planes are being used. This month,
however, in the college town of Bloomington, Indiana, residents spotted a
Cessna aircraft flying overhead at roughly the same time every day for more
than a week. After first issuing denials, local FBI agents admitted it was
their plane, involved in a terrorism investigation.
FBI officials also were quick fo 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 program has been particularly useful in investigations of organized
crime and drug trafficking. Mobsters who suspect their homes and telephones
were bugged frequently held meetings in moving cars, not realizing that bugs
were placed there and were being monitored from the air.
FBI Director Robert Mueller said last year there was a 60 percent increase
in field office requests for airplanes in the year after the September 11th