Audit Reveals that FBI Has Been Flying Drones in U.S. since 2006

Sunday, September 29, 2013
Former FBI Director Robert Mueller tells Senate about drone use (AP Photo)

Officials in the Obama administration and privacy advocates have been debating only recently about the future of drones in American airspace, and how the government should proceed with this new and controversial technology. But it turns out that one federal law enforcement agency has been quietly employing drones since the George W. Bush years.


The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began using unmanned aerial systems (UAS) in 2006, according to a report (pdf) from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General (IG).


Furthermore, the agency didn’t bother to develop privacy guidelines before utilizing the unmanned aircraft. The FBI told the IG’s office that it didn’t see the need to create drone-specific policies because officials felt UAS’s weren’t really different from manned aircraft, for which policies already exist.


Nonetheless, the IG called on the FBI to adopt new rules for drone surveillance, given that the aircraft “can be used in close proximity to a home and, with longer-lasting power systems, may be capable of flying for several hours or even days at a time, raising unique concerns about privacy and the collection of evidence,” the report said.


The Justice Department said it agreed with the report’s recommendations.


Jay Staley, senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union, supported the IG’s conclusion, saying in a prepared statement: “No agency, including the FBI, should deploy domestic surveillance drones without first having strong privacy guidelines in place.”


“We urge the Justice Department to make good on its plans to develop privacy rules that protect Americans from another mass surveillance technology,” Staley said, alluding to the recent controversy over domestic spying programs by the National Security Agency.


The report also revealed that the FBI drones did not carry weapons, and that they were deployed only under “very limited circumstances to support operations where there was a specific operational need,” such as a Midland City, Alabama, hostage crisis in January 2013, according to the audit.


Also noted in the report was that three different “units” within the Justice Department, in addition to the FBI, have acquired and tested drones since 2004. The total cost for drone activity in the department during the past nine years was $3.7 million.


It was just in the past three months that the FBI revealed it had used drones, which it said was done only occasionally to monitor stationary objects and to help law enforcement officers avoid serious risks.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

FBI Drone Use Prompts Calls for New Surveillance Rules (BBC News)

FBI Drones Flew Since 2006, Audit Says (by Adam Klasfeld, Courthouse News Service)

Interim Report on the Department of Justice’s Use and Support of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (U.S. Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General, Audit Division) (pdf)

Here’s Who’s Buying Drones: Are Local Cops Watching You from the Sky? (by Matt Bewig, AllGov)   

Drones Now Being Used by Police and Sheriffs in U.S. (by Noel Brinkerhoff and David Wallechinsky, AllGov)


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