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Congress Demands Answers From FBI On Domestic Spy Planes

After a series of recent reports exposed the FBI’s fleet of domestic spy planes, Congress is demanding answers.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, a Republican, wrote a letter calling on FBI Director James Comey to give the public the skinny on how much he is invading Americans’ privacy with his fleet of small spy planes.

The questions came after The Washington Post reported that the FBI used spying aircraft to monitor Baltimore from the skies during the Baltimore riots. Grassley pointed to similar reports in  Chicago, Boston, California, and the Minneapolis–Saint Paul.

An Associated Press investigation revealed Tuesday that the FBI operates dozens of small spy planes across the country. The report found that the FBI had performed over 100 flights in 11 states over cities and rural areas during a 30-day period. (RELATED: FBI Fleet Of Planes Spy On Americans Across The Country)

The FBI says the flights are used to gain intelligence information for investigations. They are criticized for taking video footage and in some cases using cell-site simulating devices that can collect cell phone data from thousands of innocent people.

Grassley’s questions reveal just how little Congress knows about the program.

“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,” the letter reads.

A similar program by the U.S. Marshals program was also exposed, though the details and full scope of the program remain murky. The Wall Street Journal discovered that the Marshals use “dirtboxes” — devices that gather cellphone data — on small planes for investigative purposes.

“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,” Grassley said in the letter. “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.”

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