The FBI is operating a small air force with scores of low-flying planes across the country carrying video and, at times, cellphone surveillance technology—all hidden behind fictitious companies that are fronts for the government, the AP has learned. The planes' surveillance equipment is generally used without a judge's approval, and the FBI says the flights are used for specific, ongoing investigations. In a recent 30-day period, the agency flew above more than 30 cities in 11 states, an AP review found. US law enforcement officials confirmed for the first time the wide-scale use of the aircraft, which the AP traced to at least 13 fake companies, such as FVX Research, KQM Aviation, NBR Aviation, and PXW Services. More standout details from the AP's report:
- The AP traced at least 50 aircraft back to the FBI, and identified more than 100 flights since late April over both major cities and rural areas.
- The surveillance flights comply with agency rules, an FBI spokesman says. Those rules, which are heavily redacted in publicly available documents, limit the types of equipment the agency can use, as well as the justifications and duration of the surveillance.
- Some of the aircraft can be equipped with technology that can identify thousands of people below through the cellphones they carry, even if they're not making a call or in public.
- Officials say cellphone surveillance is rare, although the AP found in recent weeks FBI flights orbiting large, enclosed buildings for extended periods where aerial photography would be less effective than electronic signals collection. Those included above Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn.
- Included on most aircraft registrations is a mysterious name, Robert Lindley. He is listed as chief executive and has at least three distinct signatures among the companies. The FBI would not say whether Lindley is a US government employee.
- Law enforcement officials said Justice Department lawyers approved the decision to create fictitious companies to protect the flights' operational security.
- The FBI asked the AP not to disclose the names of the fake companies, saying that would saddle taxpayers with the expense of creating new ones. The AP declined, noting the companies' names are listed on public documents and in government databases.
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