FBI Flies Its Now-Exposed Spy Plane over America’s Biggest Arab-American City

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In June, the AP reported on the FBI’s fleet of spy planes (following up on the work of the WaPo and independent journalists around the country). In it, they described how the FBI wanted them to keep the details of the front companies owning the planes secret.

The FBI asked the AP not to disclose the names of the fake companies it uncovered, saying that would saddle taxpayers with the expense of creating new cover companies to shield the government’s involvement, and could endanger the planes and integrity of the surveillance missions. The AP declined the FBI’s request because the companies’ names – as well as common addresses linked to the Justice Department – are listed on public documents and in government databases.

That hasn’t stopped the FBI from flying the planes under the same thin cover. Today, the Detroit Free Press reported that one of those planes has spent the last week flying over Dearborn, the biggest concentration of Arabs in the country.

The thing is, in spite of the claim to the AP that FBI would need to create new covers for their secret spy planes, they didn’t.

The 2010 Cessna is registered to a company called OTV Leasing of Bristow, Va. The registration, like other aircraft included in the AP investigation, is linked to a bank of post office boxes in Bristow.

OTV Leasing was among at least 13 fake companies used by the FBI that were identified during the AP investigation.

The chief executive of OTV Leasing is listed on aircraft records as Robert Lindley. The AP reported that Lindley is listed as CEO of several other front companies, and has at least three distinct signatures on aircraft records. The FBI did not disclose to the AP whether Lindley was a U.S. government employee; the news agency could not reach him for comment.

It’s bad enough that the population of Dearborn is being surveilled by such a high tech plane. But to do so when everyone now knows these are spy planes is all the more problematic. It’s almost hubristic, a display that the FBI can spy on that particularly population with impunity.

In Yemen they fly drones. In Dearborn, they fly planes that have already been outed as FBI spy tools.

Update: The FBI reassured community leaders this was not mass surveillance targeting a racial or religious communities.

The FBI was conducting a specific criminal probe and not investigating credible terror threats nor targeting racial or religious communities, the bureau told community leaders at a meeting Wednesday night.

[snip]

“Contrary to the suggestion of some recent media reporting, the FBI does not employ aviation assets to conduct mass surveillance nor to target specific communities,” Abbate said in a statement. “Neither does the FBI monitor lawfully protected First Amendment activity. Further, the FBI Detroit Field Office is not aware of any specific or credible threats within the local Detroit Metropolitan area.”

There are several problems with what has been relayed of this statement though (and CAIR-MI Director Dawud Walid makes some of them). First, what the FBI means by mass surveillance and what normal humans do are totally different things. If the surveillance is targeted, but sucks in thousands incidentally, FBI still doesn’t consider it mass surveillance (nor does it report it as such in required congressional reporting).

Also, if you were targeting Dearborn’s Arab-American residents, you’d be targeting neither based on religion (because a significant percentage of the Arab population is Christian) nor, technically, on race (Arab is not considered a race, at least by the census).

And the FBI has big, but secret, exceptions to what it considers “lawfully protected First Amendment activity.”

It may well be true that Dearborn’s residents have nothing to worry about. But the statement — at least what got published here — should not allay any concerns.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

3 replies
  1. P J Evans says:

    I’d bet that the FBI (and whatever other agencies they’re working with) gets very little usable information from flights like this.

  2. galljdaj says:

    And! If we doit out in the open, what then? Look at what out in the open has done to Cuba? Will the FBI start acting like Philadelphia and start carring bombs for ‘protection’!

    Return Cuban Territory to the Cuban Peoples, and require Truth to be told like Our Constitution requires of Our Govt!

  3. RUKidding says:

    There’s always been some “chatter” about Dearborn amongst the rightwing fear-mongers (I hear stuff from my deeply fundamentally religious rightwing family, who attend churches run by the Family/Fellowship – I pick up a lot of propaganda from their church services. These “churches,” imo, should lose their 501 (c)(3) status, but I digress). Dearborn is routinely trotted out as this horrible place where Sharia Law is enforced by terrible Mullahs, and we all need to freak out totally bc these Dearborn Muslims are coming to git all of us “good Christians.” Not exaggerating. Just reporting what I hear.
    *
    So … can we expect some sort of “incident” like the Boston marathon to happen in Dearborn some day soonish? If the Fibbies are engaged there, one can only assume that they’re entrapping some hapless Muslims into doing something nefarious … and then using it as a convenient excuse to take away more citizens’ rights, whilst ginning up more fear and outrage at Muslims who allegedly “hate America for our freedumbs.”

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