WHAT THE FBI’S LETTER TO RAND PAUL SAYS ABOUT THE BUREAU’S DOMESTIC DRONE USE

Photo via Flickr / schipul.

Ever since FBI Director Robert Mueller admitted to Congress last month that the agency does, in fact, use drones for “limited” domestic surveillance, we’ve wondered just how and when the Bureau has deployed these unmanned aerial vehicles. Well, we finally have an answer. Or at least part of an answer.

After prodding by privacy gadfly Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), the FBI acknowledged that since late 2006 the Bureau has used drones 10 times in domestic airspace, including twice for “national security cases” and eight times for criminal cases, and authorized the use of drones in three other criminal cases but never deployed them. The FBI also said that one of those cases involved the rescue of a 5-year-old boy who was held hostage in an Alabama bunker this year, confirming earlier reports that a drone was used in that standoff.

“The FBI uses UAVs in very limited circumstances to conduct surveillance when there is a specific, operational need,” Stephen Kelly, the FBI’s assistant director of congressional affairs, wrote in a letter to Pauldated July 19. “UAVs have been used for surveillance to support missions related to kidnappings, search and rescue operations, drug interdictions, and fugitive investigations.”

“None of the UAVs used by the FBI are armed with either lethal or non-lethal weapons, and the FBI has no plans to use weapons with UAVs,” the letter continues. “The FBI does not use UAVs to conduct ‘bulk’ surveillance or to conduct general surveillance not related to an investigation or assessment.”

Like most explanations of the government’s drone policies, the letter raises more questions than it answers, namely: How many times did the FBI fly drones in each of these cases? For how long? What information was gathered from these drone flights? What kind of drones did its agents use, with what kind of cameras? And why were drones, rather than regular old manned aircraft, used in these cases?

 

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