According to an Associated Press report published on Tuesday, June 2nd, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is operating a small air force with dozens of apparently “civilian” airplanes criss-crossing the country undertaking video and cellphone surveillance for the agency. Moreover, the entire project is based on the use of fictitious firms that are fronts for the FBI.

FBI Evgeny Buryakov

Of note, the surveillance by the planes is usually undertaken without specific approval by a judge. The AP report notes the FBI claims the flights are only used for specific, ongoing investigations. However, over a recent 30-day period, the agency conducted surveillance flights above over 30 cities in 11 states.

To illustrate the scale of the FBI spy flights, the AP tracked planes from the agency’s fleet on over 100 flights in at least 11 states and the District of Columbia, the majority with the Cessna 182T Skylane so they appeared to be civilian aircraft. The surveillance flights included areas of Houston, Phoenix, Seattle, Chicago, Boston, Minneapolis and broad areas of Southern California.

More on FBI spy flights

U.S. law enforcement officials admitted the wide-scale use of aircraft in operations for the first time. The activities can be traced to at least 13 fake companies, including KQM Aviation, NBR Aviation and PXW Services.

The article points out that even the most basic aspects of the domestic spy flights program are not available to the public given that information has been removed in censored versions of Justice Department reports.

Moreover, legal analysts note the FBI also has been extremely careful to not reveal the existence of its surveillance flights in court filings.

Most of the aircraft can also be equipped with technology that can ID people below through their cellphones, even if they’re not making a call or in a public area. Law enforcement officials told the AP that the use of cell phone tracking technology, which acts like cell towers to make phones reveal basic subscriber information, is relatively rare.

There have been published reports since 2003 that a government surveillance program might be behind unusual planes slowly circling many neighborhoods across the country.

One FBI aircraft recently photographed in flight in Virginia was outfitted with several unusual antennas under and a camera. Furthermore, a federal budget document from 2010 mentioned around 115 planes, including 90 Cessna aircraft, as being a part of the FBI’s surveillance fleet.

The officials noted that the FBI also helps local police with aerial support, such as during the recent Baltimore riots after the death of Freddie Gray, who sustained fatal injuries in police custody. All requests for local law enforcement aerial support are reviewed by senior FBI officials.

All the surveillance flights comply with agency rules, according to an FBI spokesman said. The rules, however, are heavily redacted in public documents, but they apparently limit the kind equipment the agency can use, and also spell out the justifications for and length of the surveillance.

Political analysts note this disturbing story is breaking as the Justice Department is trying to tamp down privacy concerns relating to aerial surveillance by drones. Although he has consistently acted to curtail personal freedoms to empower law enforcement during his term, President Obama says he is in favor of a public discussion about government surveillance, and has called for more transparency about spying in the wake of the NSA scandal.

Statement from the FBI

“The FBI’s aviation program is not secret,” spokesman Christopher Allen commented in a statement released. “Specific aircraft and their capabilities are protected for operational security purposes.” Allen continued to say that the FBI’s planes “are not equipped, designed or used for bulk collection activities or mass surveillance.”