Blog — Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)

July 01, 2014

The Final Batch of FBI Domestic Drone Documents – What Have We Learned?

By Mike Deutsch and Anne Weismann

Domestic drone

The FBI’s latest batch of drone documents, like all of its earlier products, provides little of substance, with large swaths of information blacked out. The FBI produced documents in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by CREW in June 2013 seeking information about the FBI’s domestic drone program. Specifically, CREW sought documents revealing the source of domestic drones, how the FBI paid for them, who trained the FBI to use them, and any policies and legal justifications regarding drone use.

Following a lawsuit by CREW, the Bureau was ordered to release responsive documents on a rolling basis, and on June 4, 2014, CREW received the sixth and final batch of documents. Not surprisingly, like the previous five batches, these documents provide little insight into the FBI’s drone program because much of the information either is already publicly available or is heavily redacted. For example, in some email chains almost all of the substantive text has been exempted, leaving the reader with only a few out-of-place sentences that have little or no meaning outside the proper context.

Even those documents for which the FBI did not claim exemptions fail to provide any of the information we requested in our FOIA. Instead, they read more like a promotional advertisement for the Bureau’s drone program.

To be fair, some documents do discuss some instances in which the use of drones played a critical role in FBI operations. For example, the FBI used drone surveillance in support of the successful rescue of the five year old child was being held hostage in an underground bunker by Jimmy Lee Dykes. Further, the documents state the FBI will use drones only when there is a “clear, operational” need, not to conduct “bulk” surveillance that is not related to an investigation. According to the documents, none of the drones used by the FBI are armed with either lethal or non-lethal weapons, and the FBI does not have any plans to use weapons on domestic drones.

As we progress deeper into the 21st century and technology becomes more advanced, the use of drones likely will become a common aspect of law enforcement operations. Beyond the questions of how surveillance drones should be used and what limits should be placed on their use is the fundamental question of the public’s right to know. The spate of recent news articles about the government’s domestic use of drones reinforces the public’s need for information on the specifics of drone use on U.S. soil. CREW’s FOIA request seeks information at the heart of that need. Who provides the FBI with its drones? How did the FBI pay for them? Who trained the FBI to use them? What are the policies and legal justifications regarding drone use?

Without answers to these questions, the public’s concern and skepticism are both understandable and rational. Answering these questions will not only shed light on the drone program, but will go a long way toward fulfilling the administration’s promise of transparency and the public accountability it brings. With the FBI failing to make good on that promise, it is now up to the court.

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