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Where Is the Paper Trail for the FBI's Drone Use?

With Mueller officially putting drone use on record, and with a bit of FOIA prodding, hopefully the FBI will glance through their filing cabinets a second time.
FBI Director Robert Mueller, via the US Embassy in Estonia

In a Wednesday hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, FBI Director Robert Mueller admitted that the Bureau does, in fact, use drones for surveillance over domestic airspace.

Asked by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) whether the FBI uses drones and for what purposes, Mueller answered, “Yes, and for surveillance.” Grassley pressed further, inquiring whether the FBI uses drones for surveillance on American soil, which Mueller confirmed with another terse “Yes.”

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It seems this is the first official confirmation of an FBI drone program, but Mueller’s testimony isn’t exactly a revelation. When the Electronic Frontier Foundation sued the Federal Aviation Administration in January 2012 to reveal which government agencies had applied for domestic drone waivers, the FBI was (predictably) on the list. This February, FBI sources told CNN that surveillance drones “constantly monitored” a hostage situation in an Alabama bunker. At the time, it was not clear whether the drones were owned by the FBI or another agency.

At the hearing, Mueller insisted that the FBI’s drone use is limited, saying that “our footprint is very small, we have very few and of limited use.”

That footprint must be pretty damn small indeed, since Bureau records officers insist that the FBI has no paper trail whatsoever on drone deployment.

Last July, MuckRock sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the FBI as part of the Drone Census, a collaboration with EFF to map use of drones nationwide. The request sought documents related to the purchase and use of drones, including contracts, budget proposals, policy memos, manuals and flight logs, among other records. MuckRock sent the same request to 375 agencies, including every entity on the FAA lists.

A month later, the FBI responded: no documents here. Based on its application to the FAA alone, this was clearly not gospel. Mueller’s latest confirmation underscores that even further, as even the “very few” drones the FBI has in its fleet must have come with receipts at minimum.

To be fair, many of the records we asked for, in particular policies and privacy assessments, are apparently still in development. When Senator Grassley aired his assumption that the FBI must have already developed “a set of policies, procedures and operational limits” to guide its drone operations, Mueller averred that these policies were still in their “initial stages” of being drawn up.

Mueller also told Senator Feinstein, who characterized the drone as “the greatest threat to the privacy of Americans,” that he would have to check on what steps the FBI takes to protect privacy as it conducts aerial drone surveillance.

While Mueller emphasized that his agency’s use of drones is very limited and targeted, it is unlikely to remain that way for long. As interest in drones grows not just for law enforcement but for a wide swath of purposes, transparency regarding their deployment is essential. With Mueller officially putting drone use on record, and with a bit of FOIA prodding, hopefully the FBI will glance through their filing cabinets a second time.