The FBI Used Its Most Advanced Spy Plane To Watch Black Lives Matter Protests
The aircraft is normally used to provide surveillance for big federal drug and gang busts — but flew over the Black Lives Matter protests in DC earlier this month, as well as over Baltimore during the protests following Freddie Gray's death.
Shortly before 11 p.m. on Monday, June 1, just hours after federal police used tear gas and batons to clear protesters from the front of the White House for President Donald Trump’s Bible-wielding photo op, a Cessna Citation jet took off from Manassas Regional Airport in Virginia. Until about 1.30 a.m., it flew in a 7-mile circle around central Washington, DC, surveilling the protests, flight tracking records show.
The aircraft is a one-of-a-kind spy plane operated by the FBI, fitted with sophisticated cameras for long-range, persistent video surveillance, day or night. It repeated its late-night circling around the city as protests continued the following two nights, and made a shorter flight on June 6.
Normally, this elite spy plane is deployed for some of the FBI’s most important surveillance missions, providing eyes in the sky when federal agents arrest drug traffickers or violent gang members. But this isn’t the first time it has flown over Black Lives Matter protests: A BuzzFeed News review of flight tracking records has established that the same aircraft circled above Baltimore in April and May of 2015, during the unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray from severe injuries sustained in police custody.
FBI surveillance of protests, even if they happen after a curfew has been declared, is controversial because the agency says it does not monitor activity protected by the First Amendment.
“It’s now been well documented that a number of federal agencies wildly overreacted to protests in DC in deeply troubling ways,” Nathan Freed Wessler, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Project on Speech, Privacy, and Technology, told BuzzFeed News. “To learn that the FBI deployed its state-of-the-art surveillance plane to watch these historic protests raises additional troubling questions.”
The FBI has a fleet of more than 120 surveillance aircraft, covertly registered to fictitious companies. In 2016, BuzzFeed News analyzed more than four months of flights by these planes.
“It should come as no surprise that the FBI uses planes to follow terrorists, spies, and serious criminals,” said then–deputy director Mark Giuliano in June 2015, in a rare public statement on the agency’s aviation program. “We have an obligation to follow those people who want to hurt our country and its citizens, and we will continue to do so."
The vast majority of the FBI’s planes are small, propeller-driven Cessnas, according to Federal Aviation Administration registration records for the agency’s front companies. The jet that flew over BLM protests is the only aircraft of its type operated by known FBI fronts. It is registered to the National Aircraft Leasing Corporation, identified as an FBI alias in the 2012 book Intel Wars, an analysis of the “war on terror” written by the former intelligence analyst Matthew Aid. The address given on the plane’s registration documents is a UPS Store in Greenville, Delaware.
Other FAA documents, submitted to verify that the plane is safe to fly, reveal how it has been outfitted for advanced surveillance.
It was fitted with video cameras in 2006, by a company called Alpha Research & Technology. Photos on the firm’s website show the plane and the two-person, three-screen console used to control its surveillance cameras from inside the main cabin. The plane now carries a Wescam MX-20 steerable camera turret, described by its manufacturer as ideal for high-altitude, persistent surveillance. It can monitor targets day and night, see through haze, and provide infrared thermal imaging.
Other FBI planes carry less capable cameras requiring the aircraft to fly at altitudes of around 5,000 feet, where they would more easily be spotted from the ground. Those planes watch suspects in FBI investigations in the same region as their home airport. The Citation jet, by contrast, is deployed across the entire nation, and often circles its targets at altitudes of 15,000 feet or more. During the flights above Washington, DC, in early June, it flew at between 13,000 and 17,500 feet.
BuzzFeed News obtained flight tracking records for the plane going back to the start of 2015 from the website Flightradar24, linking several of its flights to high-profile raids on drug traffickers and violent gangs. These included major drug trafficking busts in Puerto Rico in 2018 and 2019, drug and money laundering arrests in northern Alabama in October 2019, and the capture of members of prisoner-led gangs in Woodland, Northern California, in February 2018.
But the plane’s recent outing above DC is not the first time it has watched BLM protests. In May 2015, the ACLU noted that an unidentified Cessna Citation had circled above Baltimore during the unrest triggered by the death of Freddie Gray. An FBI propeller-driven Cessna was also tracked circling over the city at that time.
In 2015, the FBI Cessna Citation’s identity was masked on public flight tracking websites, but from the Flightradar24 data BuzzFeed News has now confirmed that the same plane that flew over the BLM protests in DC in June following George Floyd's death also conducted surveillance in Baltimore after Freddie Gray was killed.
Although there had been violent clashes and looting in the days before the FBI planes were deployed above Baltimore, more than 18 hours of video footage subsequently released by the agency showed peaceful marches and people moving around on the streets at night.
In 2015, the Baltimore Police Department asked for the FBI’s help in monitoring unrest in the city. But the DC Metropolitan Police Department said it did not request the flights above the nation’s capital in early June.
“MPD did not request FBI aerial support,” department spokesperson Alaina Gertz told BuzzFeed News by email.
The surveillance flights over DC began the day after another branch of the Department of Justice, the Drug Enforcement Administration, was given the authority to “conduct covert surveillance” and collect intelligence on people protesting the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
The FBI can also equip its planes with devices called cell site simulators that mimic a cellphone tower and can be used to locate and track people via their phones. But Heath Hardman, a lawyer who used to operate similar devices for the US Marine Corps, could find no evidence of antennas that would be used for this purpose in the FAA documents for the Citation jet, and said that a plane tracking phones would be unlikely to fly so high. “You want to be as low as you can without being detected,” he told BuzzFeed News.
The FBI declined to answer specific questions from BuzzFeed News about the evidence collected by the plane, and whether it conducted any forms of surveillance other than video monitoring.
“The FBI is supporting our state, local, and federal law enforcement partners with maintaining public safety in the communities we serve,” the agency responded in a written statement. “Our efforts are focused on identifying, investigating, and disrupting individuals that are inciting violence and engaging in criminal activity. The FBI respects those who are exercising their First Amendment rights, including the right to peacefully protest."
The FBI’s Cessna jet wasn’t the only sophisticated government spy plane to fly over DC in early June. On June 3 and 4, an RC-26 surveillance aircraft operated by the Air National Guard flew in tighter circles at altitudes of less than 7,000 feet. These planes, like the FBI’s jet, are commonly used in counter–drug trafficking operations.
The Air National Guard told Air Force magazine that these flights were “responding to a District of Columbia National Guard request to provide airborne situational awareness of key lines of communication and critical infrastructure within the District.”
The Air Force Inspector General is now investigating whether this aircraft improperly monitored protesters, the New York Times reported on June 18.
“It would be inappropriate to comment further at this time due to the ongoing nature of the investigation,” National Guard spokesperson Wayne Hall told BuzzFeed News by email.