The FBI used aerial surveillance above Baltimore and Ferguson, according to reports by the Baltimore Sun and The Associated Press.
The Sun reports that the FBI used advanced technology on airplanes to monitor protesters in Baltimore in the week after Freddie Gray‘s funeral, according to documents the Sun obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
According to the AP, FBI Director James Comey said Oct. 22 that the agency used its aircraft above Ferguson, Missouri, last year at the request of local law enforcement to help keep track of unrest on the ground.
Comey did not go into details during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Thursday, including how long the surveillance lasted.
But in response to questioning, he said the FBI uses airplanes during investigations of specific suspects in criminal, terrorism and espionage investigations and when local police request help during a “developing situation” or emergencies such as riots. He said the planes were never used for mass surveillance.
“We don’t fly planes around America looking down to see if somebody might be doing something wrong,” Comey told the panel.
He said the FBI’s deployment of aircraft in Ferguson, where police and protesters clashed following the August 2014 police shooting of an unarmed black 18-year-old, was similar to the help offered during riots in Baltimore last April that followed the death of 26-year-old Freddie Gray.
“If there is tremendous turbulence in a community, it’s useful to everybody — civilians and law enforcement — to have a view of what’s going on. Where are the fires in this community? Where are people gathering? Where do people need help? And sometimes the best view of that is above rather than trying to look form a car in the street.”
The Associated Press reported in June that it had traced at least 50 aircraft back to the FBI and had identified more than 100 flights in 11 states over a 30-day period last spring. Law enforcement officials said at the time that the FBI hid its aircraft behind fictitious companies to protect the safety of the pilots and aircraft, shielding their identities from would-be suspects on the ground.
Comey said the FBI generally doesn’t think warrants are required, in part because the planes do not capture or record the contents of any communications on the ground.