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Lawmakers Probe FBI’s ‘Disturbing’ Use of Spy Planes

FBI director James Comey

FBI director James Comey // Evan Vucci/AP File Photo

Members of Congress are demanding that the FBI turn over more information about its use of airplanes to conduct surveillance of Americans.

The FBI is using at least 50 planes to conduct surveillance operations over U.S. cities and rural areas, the Associated Press reported earlier this week. The planes, registered under fake company names, are equipped with high-tech cameras and, in some circumstances, technology that can track thousands of cell phones below.

"In the wake of the president's signature on a surveillance reform law that ends warrantless bulk collection of Americans' phone records, it is highly disturbing that your agency may be doing just that and more with a secret fleet of aircraft engaged in surveillance missions in the United States," 16 lawmakers, including Reps. Suzan DelBene, Zoe Lofgren, and Chris Van Hollen, wrote in a letter Thursday to FBI Director James Comey.

The lawmakers requested that the FBI brief Congress on the legal theories justifying the program, when it seeks warrants, the technologies it uses on the flights, and how it limits spying on innocent Americans.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and Sen. Al Franken sent their own letters this week asking for similar information from the FBI.

In a statement Thursday, the FBI denied that it was collecting any information in bulk or that the program was classified. The bureau said it uses fake company names to protect the security of the operations, and that the Justice Department conducts "rigorous oversight." The flights use cell-phone-tracking technology only in rare circumstances, such as hostage situations, the FBI said.

"It should come as no surprise that the FBI uses planes to follow terrorists, spies, and serious criminals," FBI Deputy Director Mark Giuliano said. "We have an obligation to follow those people who want to hurt our country and its citizens, and we will continue to do so."

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