WASHINGTON – Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley is asking the Federal Bureau of Investigation to provide details on its largely secretive use of small aircraft to perform surveillance in certain circumstances.  Some aircraft are reportedly equipped with technology that can monitor ground activity and even collect certain identifying cell phone information of people who are not the intended target of an investigation, often without a court order.

“It’s not a secret that the FBI is operating in the skies above our nation’s cities and towns, but what’s unclear is precisely what the Bureau is doing and what legal framework is being used to guide its activity.  It’s important that federal law enforcement personnel have the tools they need to find and catch criminals, but whenever an operation may also monitor the activities of Americans who are not the intended target, as several media reports suggest, we must make darn sure that safeguards are in place to protect the civil liberties of innocent Americans,” Grassley said.

Recent media reports revealed that the FBI conducts aerial surveillance by flying small aircraft equipped with surveillance technology in tight circles over certain communities. In a recent 30-day window, the FBI reportedly conducted surveillance operations in at least 30 cities in 11 states and Washington, D.C.  

Grassley sent a letter to the FBI Monday evening requesting details regarding the scope and authority of its aerial surveillance program as well as what technology is used.  A signed copy of the letter can be found here.  Full text of the letter can be found below.

June 1, 2015


The Honorable James B. Comey, Jr. 
Federal Bureau of Investigation 
935 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. 
Washington, D.C. 20535 

Dear Director Comey:

    According to The Washington Post, two airplanes were spotted flying in circles over parts of West Baltimore for several days last month, following the riots concerning the death of Freddie Gray.   The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reportedly confirmed that it made planes available to the Baltimore Police Department for the purpose of “providing aerial imagery of possible criminal activity,” but that the FBI did not use cell-site simulators in any operation pertaining to the riots in Baltimore.    

Other reports have alleged that similar flights have been spotted in Chicago, Boston, California, and the Twin Cities.   Please have knowledgeable FBI staff provide a briefing to Committee staff on this matter no later than June 12, 2015.  Specifically, I would like to know (1) the scope, nature, and purpose of these operations; (2) what types of surveillance equipment were used in the operations, if not cell-site simulators; and (3) what legal authorities, if any, are being relied upon in carrying out these operations.  

Should you have any questions, please contact Jay Lim of my Committee staff at (202) 224-5225.  Thank you for your cooperation in this important matter.  


                            Charles E. Grassley