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Brennan Center for Justice: Overall crime rates in America’s 30 largest cities were nearly identical from 2014 to 2015, according to an analysis of final 2015 numbers. Crime declined over that time period by 0.1 percent. The data show that crime rates remain at historic lows nationally, despite recent upticks in a handful of cities.
The authors of this report looked at changes in crime and murder from 2014 to 2015, using data through Dec. 31, 2015, and examined economic factors in Chicago, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., that could explain why murder rates are up in those cities. Of the 30 cities studied, the three areas accounted for more than half of the increase in murders last year.
Among the updated findings:
Crime overall in the 30 largest cities in 2015 remained the same as in 2014, decreasing by 0.1 percent. Two-thirds of cities saw drops in crime, which were offset mostly by an increase in Los Angeles (12.7 percent). Nationally, crime remains at all-time lows.
Violent crime rose slightly, by 3.1 percent. This result was primarily caused by increasing violence in Los Angeles (25.2 percent), Baltimore (19.2 percent), and Charlotte (15.9 percent). Notably, aggravated assaults in Los Angeles account for more than half of the national rise in violent crime.
The 2015 murder rate rose by 13.2* percent in the 30 largest cities, with 19 cities seeing increases and 6 decreases. However, in absolute terms, murder rates are so low that a small numerical increase can lead to a large percentage change.
Final data confirm that three cities (Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.) account for more than half (244) of the national increase in murders. While this suggests cause for concern in some cities, murder rates vary widely from year to year, and there is little evidence of a national coming wave in violent crime. These serious increases seem to be localized, rather than part of a national pandemic, suggesting that community conditions remain the major factor. Notably, these three cities all seem to have falling populations, higher poverty rates, and higher unemployment than the national average. This implies that economic deterioration of these cities could be a contributor to murder increases.
The new figures are an update to a Brennan Center November 2015 report, Crime in 2015: A Preliminary Analysis, authored by a team of economists and legal researchers. That report found similar conclusions. The Brennan Center also released a near-final update of the numbers in December 2015.
*This number has been changed from 13.3 to reflect a transcription error.
WashingtonPost: The Justice Department on Thursday revealed that a well-known Islamic State operative instructed a Boston-area man to kill Pamela Geller, the organizer of a controversial Muhammad cartoon contest in Texas last year.
In court documents, prosecutors said that Junaid Hussain, a British militant, had been communicating with Usaamah Abdullah Rahim, 26, who along with two friends discussed beheading Geller.
Rahim, however, changed his mind and instead decided to target a police officer. He was shot and killed in June 2015 in Roslindale, Mass., after he attacked members of an FBI-led surveillance team while wielding a large knife, officials said.
Hussain, 21, was killed in Raqqa, Syria, in August 2015 in a drone strike. He was a well-known militant involved in not only spreading Islamic State propaganda but also recruiting and planning attacks, officials said.
FBI Director James B. Comey has said previously that a Phoenix man who tried to attack the Muhammad cartoon contest in Texas was trading encrypted messages with an Islamic State operative. A senior U.S law enforcement official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the case, declined to identify that operative but said it was not Hussain. Another official described the person as a member of the group’s unit that runs external operations.
Prosecutors said Rahim, along with two associates, Nicholas Alexander Rovinski, 25, of Warwick, R.I., and his nephew, David Wright, 26, of Everett, Mass., began plotting a terror operation in the United States in early 2015.
According to the Justice Department, Wright in March 2015 drafted organizational documents for a “Martyrdom Operations Cell” and conducted Internet searches about firearms, tranquilizers and the establishment of secret militias in the United States. Rovinski conducted research on weapons that could be used to behead people, the authorities said.
Prosecutors said Hussain communicated directly with Rahim, who then communicated instructions to the other conspirators to kill Geller in New York, where she lives. They planned to kill her around the July 4 holiday, court documents show.
The FBI was closely monitoring the men, officials said, and would have arrested them had they tried to travel to New York.
After Rahim’s death, prosecutors charged Rovinski and Wright with conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist organization. Prosecutors also revealed that Rovinski has written letters to Wright from prison “discussing ways to take down the U.S. government and decapitate non-believers.” Rovinski also pledged his allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State, according to court documents.
On Thursday, Rovinski and Wright were also charged in a superseding indictment with conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism transcending national boundaries.
ISIS suspect reveals plans to open up route from Syria to U.S. through Mexico
FoxLatino: One of the American men accused in Minnesota of trying to join the Islamic State group wanted to open up routes from Syria to the U.S. through Mexico, prosecutors said.
Gules Ali Omar told the ISIS members about the route so that it could be used to send members to America to carry out terrorist attacks, prosecutors alleged in a document filed this week.
The document, filed Wednesday, is one of many filed in recent weeks as prosecutors and defense attorneys argue about which evidence should be allowed at the men’s trial, which starts May 9.
The men — Omar, 21; Hamza Naj Ahmed, 21; Mohamed Abdihamid Farah, 22; and Abdirahman Yasin Daud, 22 — have pleaded not guilty to multiple charges, including conspiracy to commit murder outside the U.S. Prosecutors have said they were part of a group of friends in Minnesota’s Somali community who held secret meetings and plotted to join the Islamic State group.
Five other men have pleaded guilty to one count each of conspiracy to support a foreign terrorist organization. A tenth man charged in the case is at-large, believed to be in Syria.
The government’s document was filed in response to a defense request that prosecutors be barred from introducing evidence about possible attacks in the U.S.
Last week, Daud’s attorney wrote that, absent any specific evidence that his client threatened the United States, any references to discussions about attacks would be prejudicial. To permit such references, as well as references to the Sept. 11 attacks or exhibits that show violent images of war crimes, “would cause the jurors to decide out of fear and contempt alone,” defense attorney Bruce Nestor wrote.
But prosecutors said audio recordings obtained during the investigation show the defendants spoke multiple times about the possibility of attacks in the U.S. Among them, Omar spoke of establishing a route for fighters, Farah spoke of killing an FBI agent and another man who pleaded guilty talked about shooting a homemade rocket at an airplane.
Prosecutors wrote that they should be allowed to “play for the jury the defendants’ own words, in which they discuss the possibility of returning to attack the United States.” They also said the defendants watched videos and gruesome images, which they also want to play for the jury, and that a blanket ban on mentioning the 2001 attacks is inappropriate, noting that Omar had pictures of the burning World Trade Center towers and Osama bin Laden on his cellphone.
A phone message left with Omar’s attorney wasn’t immediately returned.
The FBI has said about a dozen people have left Minnesota to join militant groups fighting in Syria in recent years. In addition, since 2007 more than 22 men have joined al-Shabab in Somalia.
U.S.Treasury: We are committed to defending human rights and advancing democratic governance in Venezuela through the use of financial sanctions.
We will use these tools to target those persons involved in violence against anti-government protesters, serious human rights abuses, and those involved in the arrest or prosecution of individuals for their legitimate exercise of free speech.
Corrupt actions by Venezuelan government officials deprive Venezuela of needed economic resources that could be invested in the Venezuelan people and used to spur economic growth. These actions also undermine the public trust in democratic institutions and the human rights to which Venezuelan citizens are entitled. This Executive Order will be used to protect the U.S. financial system from the illicit financial flows from public corruption in Venezuela.
CNN: The cash-strapped country could default by next year when lots of debt payments are due. Venezuela’s reserves, which are mostly made up of gold, have fallen sharply this year as the country needs cash to pay off debt and tries to maintain its social welfare programs.
Venezuela owes about $15.8 billion in debt payments between now and the end of 2016.
But it doesn’t have enough to make good on its payments. Venezuela only has $15.2 billion in foreign reserves — the lowest amount since 2003. A lot of those reserves are in gold.
Less than $1 billion of Venezuela’s reserves are in cash, and it has a couple billion in reserves at the IMF.
Police arrest students during a protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in San Cristobal. Two officers died and four more were hurt
FT: At the main morgue of central Caracas, the stench forces everyone to cover their nostrils. “Now things are worse than ever,” says Yuli Sánchez. “They kill people and no one is punished while families have to keep their pain to themselves.”
Ms Sánchez’s 14-year-old nephew, Oliver, was shot five times by malandros, or thugs, while riding on the back of a friend’s motorcycle. His uncle, Luis Mejía, remarked that in a fortnight three members of their family had been shot, including two youths who were shot by police.
An economic, social and political crisis facing Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s unpopular president, is being aggravated by a rise in violence which is prompting fears that this oil-rich country risks becoming a failed state.
“What can we do?” Mr Mejía asks. “Give up.” The morgue employee in charge of handling the corpses notes that a decade ago he received seven or eight bodies every weekend. These days, he says, that number has risen to between 40 and 50: “This is now wilder than the wild west.”
Critics say that the Venezuelan government is increasingly unable to provide citizens with water, electricity, health or a functioning economy which can supply basic food staples or indispensable medicines, let alone personal safety.
Last month alone, Venezuelans learned of the summary execution of at least 17 gold miners supposedly by a mining Mafia, the killing of two police officers allegedly by a group of students who drove a bus into a barricade, and a hostage drama inside a prison at the hands of a grenade-wielding criminal gang. On Wednesday, three policemen were killed when an armed gang busted a member out of a lock-up in the capital.
At least 10 were killed in a Caracas shanty town after a confrontation between local thugs armed with assault rifles, while a local mayor was gunned down outside his home in Trujillo state last month. There are widespread reports of lynchings.
All this is creating a broad unease that Mr Maduro is unable to maintain order. Venezuela has the world’s fastest inflation and its dire recession is worsening. Mr Maduro last week declared every Friday a holiday for the next two months to save electricity as a prolonged drought has exacerbated chronic power shortages. There is a lack of basic goods. Analysts warn that the economic crisis risks turning in to a humanitarian one.
The evidence of state failure is very concrete in the country that sits on top of the world’s largest oil reserves– Moisés Naím, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
“Failed state is a nebulous concept often used too lightly. That’s not the case with today’s Venezuela,” says Moisés Naím a Venezuelan distinguished fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The evidence of state failure is very concrete in the country that sits on top of the world’s largest oil reserves.”
Venezuela is already one of the world’s deadliest countries. The Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, a local think-tank, says the murder rate rose last year to 92 killings per 100,000 residents. The attorney-general cites a lower figure of 58 homicides per 100,000.
In 1998, a year before former leader Hugo Chávez took office, the rate was 19 per 100,000, says the think-tank’s director Roberto Briceño León, adding that after 17 years of socialist “revolution”, it is the poor who make up most of the victims.
“I think it is evident that the Venezuelan state cannot act as a state in many areas of the country, so it could be considered failed,” says Mr Briceño, adding that the state now “lacks a monopoly on violence”.
But the state is indeed to blame for some of that violence, according to a report by advocacy groups Human Rights Watch and the Venezuelan Human Rights Education-Action Programme presented to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
“Venezuelans are facing one of the highest murder rates in the hemisphere and urgently need effective protection from violent crime,” said José Miguel Vivanco HRW’s Americas director. “But in multiple raids throughout the country, the security forces themselves have allegedly committed serious abuses.”
Their findings show that police and military raids in low-income and immigrant communities in Venezuela have led to widespread allegations of abuse, including extrajudicial killings, mass arbitrary detentions, maltreatment of detainees, forced evictions, the destruction of homes, and arbitrary deportations.
Country’s bitter power struggle reflects institutional weakness across the region
The government usually blames violence within its borders on Colombian rightwing paramilitaries engaged in a war against its revolution. But as David Smilde and Hugo Pérez Hernáiz of the Washington Office on Latin America, a think-tank, recently wrote: “Attributing violence in Venezuela to paramilitary activity has been a common rhetorical move used by the government over the past year, effectively making a citizen security problem into a national security problem.”
For many Venezuelans it no longer matters who is to blame. “It is a state policy of letting anarchy sink in,” says a former policeman outside the gates of a compound in Caracas.
That former police station now houses the Frente 5 de Marzo, one of the political groups that consider themselves the keepers of socialism’s sacred flame. The gates bear the colours of the Venezuelan flag and are marked with bullet holes. The man believes there is something akin to a civil war going on.
“Venezuela is pure chaos now. It seems to me there is no way back,” he says.
Iran has been outsourcing for many years and that includes to Iran:
Iran’s ambassador to Venezuela said Tuesday that a check worth about $70 million, found by German authorities in the luggage of Iran’s former central bank chief, was going to be used by an Iranian company for its expenses while building public housing in Venezuela.
Iranian Ambassador Hojattolah Soltani made the remarks in an interview with the Venezuelan television channel Globovision, saying the check for 300 million Venezuelan bolivars was to be used for the expenses of the Kayson Company, a Tehran-based construction business that is building thousands of homes for the Venezuelan government.
The Iranian ambassador noted that the man with the check whom German authorities stopped last month is not currently a government official. Soltani said that Tahmasb Mazaheri, a former chief of Iran’s central bank and former economy minister, has been working as an adviser to the Iranian company.
Venezuelan authorities had to comment on the issue, and stressed that everything was above board (link is external). The Iranian Ambassador to Caracas would later recant his opinion, as cited by AP above, saying about the caught check-courier (link is external) “[he] is by no means an official of the Government (of Iran); neither has his name been affixed to the confiscated check”, and adding that the check “was signed in Iran and Mr. Mazaheri was on his way to Venezuela to bring the check to cash it in Banco Venezuela.”
Politico: Four years after asserting executive privilege to block Congress from obtaining documents relating to a controversial federal gun trafficking investigation, President Barack Obama relented Friday, turning over to lawmakers thousands of pages of records that led to unusual House votes holding Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt in 2012.
In January, a federal district court judge rejected Obama’s executive privilege claim over records detailing the Justice Department and White House’s response to Operation Fast and Furious, a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigation that may have allowed as many as 2,000 firearms to pass into the hands of Mexican drug cartels.
In her ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson did not turn down Obama’s privilege assertion on the merits. Instead, she said authorized public disclosures about the operation in a Justice Department inspector general report essentially mooted the administration’s drive to keep the records secret.
Both sides had until midnight Friday to file an appeal. Instead, the Obama administration turned over a set of documents to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
“In light of the passage of time and other considerations, such as the Department’s interest in moving past this litigation and building upon our cooperative working relationship with the Committee and other Congressional committees, the Department has decided that it is not in the Executive Branch’s interest to continue litigating this issue at this time,” Justice Deparment legislative liaison Peter Kadzik wrote in a letter Friday to House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah).
Justice Department spokesman Patrick Rodenbush confirmed that the administration does not plan to appeal. He argued that Jackson’s ruling validated Obama’s initial claim of privilege.
“The Department of Justice is pleased that the district court … continued to recognize that the deliberative process component of the executive privilege exists and was a valid basis for the Department to withhold certain documents when requested by the House in 2011. Although the Department disagrees with the district court’s conclusion that the privilege was overcome in this particular case by disclosures and statements made in other contexts, the Department has decided not to appeal the court’s judgment and has provided a production of documents to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform,” Rodenbush said in a statement.
While the House largely won in the January decision, it did file an appeal earlier Friday afternoon, apparently unaware of the administration’s plans to comply with the judge’s order. The appeal suggested that House leaders were dissatisfied with aspects of Jackson’s rulings that narrowed the set of documents the administration had to turn over.
“As we’ve long asserted, the Committee requires and is entitled to these documents,” Chaffetz said in a statement. “They are critical to the Committee’s efforts to complete meaningful oversight. The Committee has a duty to understand and shine light on what was happening inside DOJ during the time of this irresponsible operation. Yet DOJ has obstructed our investigative work for years.”
After getting word that the Justice Department was turning over records, Chaffetz updated his statement, indicating that the House plans to press its appeal to get records beyond the ones the administration is providing.
“Today, under court order, DOJ turned over some of the subpoenaed documents. The Committee, however, is entitled to the full range of documents for which it brought this lawsuit. Accordingly, we have appealed the District Court’s ruling in order to secure those additional documents,” Chaffetz said.
Guns sold by dealers or informants used in the ATF operation wound up at numerous crime scenes in Mexico and the U.S. In December 2010, two of the weapons were found at the scene of the murder of a Border Patrol agent in Arizona.
Obama’s privilege claim in the Fast and Furious fight was broad-ranging, seeking to cover not only internal deliberations about how to respond to congressional inquiries but also discussions about media strategy related to the congressional probes.
The June 2012 claim in the Fast and Furious case was the only formal assertion of executive privilege by Obama to try to defeat a congressional demand for records or testimony, though the administration has raised executive privilege concerns when declining to comply with other congressional inquiries. Most of those were resolved through negotiations. The administration has also asserted executive privilege in response to a variety of Freedom of Information Act lawsuits.
BuzzFeed: Each weekday, dozens of U.S. government aircraft take to the skies and slowly circle over American cities. Piloted by agents of the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the planes are fitted with high-resolution video cameras, often working with “augmented reality” software that can superimpose onto the video images everything from street and business names to the owners of individual homes. At least a few planes have carried devices that can track the cell phones of people below. Most of the aircraft are small, flying a mile or so above ground, and many use exhaust mufflers to mute their engines — making them hard to detect by the people they’re spying on.
The government’s airborne surveillance has received little public scrutiny — until now. BuzzFeed News has assembled an unprecedented picture of the operation’s scale and sweep by analyzing aircraft location data collected by the flight-tracking website Flightradar24 from mid-August to the end of December last year, identifying about 200 federal aircraft. Day after day, dozens of these planes circled above cities across the nation.
Day after day, dozens of these planes circled above cities across the nation.
The FBI and the DHS would not discuss the reasons for individual flights but told BuzzFeed News that their planes are not conducting mass surveillance.
The DHS said that its aircraft were involved with securing the nation’s borders, as well as targeting drug smuggling and human trafficking, and may also be used to support investigations by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. The FBI said that its planes are only used to target suspects in specific investigations of serious crimes, pointing to a statement issued in June 2015, after reporters and lawmakers started asking questions about FBI surveillance flights.
“It should come as no surprise that the FBI uses planes to follow terrorists, spies, and serious criminals,” said FBI Deputy Director Mark Giuliano, in that statement. “We have an obligation to follow those people who want to hurt our country and its citizens, and we will continue to do so.”
But most of these government planes took the weekends off. The BuzzFeed News analysis found that surveillance flight time dropped more than 70% on Saturdays, Sundays, and federal holidays.
“The fact that they are mostly not flying on weekends suggests these are relatively run-of-the-mill investigations,” Nathan Freed Wessler, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Project on Speech, Privacy, and Technology, told BuzzFeed News.
The government’s aerial surveillance programs deserve scrutiny by the Supreme Court, said Adam Bates, a policy analyst with the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C. “It’s very difficult to know, because these are very secretive programs, exactly what information they’re collecting and what they’re doing with it,” Bates told BuzzFeed News.
The BuzzFeed News analysis also revealed how the government responded to the mass shooting last December in San Bernardino, California.
Surveillance flight time dropped more than 70% on Saturdays, Sundays, and federal holidays.
In the weeks leading up to the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11, nearby neighborhoods in and around Los Angeles were watched intensively by FBI aircraft. But San Bernardino itself was apparently ignored: Our data shows no FBI surveillance flights over the city.
That changed abruptly after the attack on the morning of Dec. 2. Within 90 minutes, two planes — one an FBI Cessna, the other a DHS Pilatus PC-12 surveillance aircraft — were circling the scene. Later that afternoon, the FBI plane flew around the home of the two shooters, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik.
Farook attended the nearby Dar Al Uloom Al-Islamiyah of America mosque. And starting Dec. 3, FBI planes traced circles with the mosque near their center. Three different FBI planes flew around the mosque, some circling for more than three hours at a time. There were flights on each day in the week after the attack — except for Saturday and Sunday.
The FBI told BuzzFeed News that it cannot launch investigations based on race, ethnicity, or religion — surveillance means that individual criminal suspects are being watched, not groups of people.
But Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, an umbrella organization representing the region’s mosques and Islamic centers, told BuzzFeed News that he is alarmed that the FBI’s knee-jerk reaction to the San Bernardino massacre seems to have been to send its planes to watch the Dar Al Uloom mosque.
“That is extremely troubling, and reconfirms the fears that we continue to talk about,” Syed said. “I don’t know that they have ever done surveillance of churches or synagogues when people of those traditions have committed acts of criminality.”
In the months before the San Bernardino attack, some of the government’s surveillance planes circled over other neighborhoods with large Muslim populations. In the San Francisco Bay Area, for instance, there was a clear circle above Little Kabul in Fremont, home to the largest concentration of ethnic Afghans in the nation. The main concentrations of surveillance in Minneapolis, meanwhile, were above an area known as Little Mogadishu for its large Somali population.
But these neighborhoods did not come under heightened aerial scrutiny after the terrorist mayhem in Paris on Nov. 13, nor after San Bernardino. And on Thanksgiving Day, less than two weeks after the Paris attacks, with the nation under a State Department–issued global terrorism alert, federal surveillance planes almost entirely stopped flying, only to resume once the holiday was over.
The BuzzFeed News analysis almost certainly underestimates the scope of surveillance by federal aircraft. Some two dozen planes operated by the FBI and more than 130 registered to the DHS never appeared on Flightradar24, suggesting that some surveillance planes may be hidden from public view on plane-tracking websites. (See here for details on the BuzzFeed News analysis.)
FBI planes have also on occasion been used to support local law enforcement. In April 2015, after riots broke out in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, FBI planes were sent to monitor the situation, documents obtained by the ACLU show. FBI Director James Comey told Congress that the agency’s aircraft also flew over Ferguson, Missouri, in the summer of 2014, after a local police officer shot Michael Brown.
Responding to the BuzzFeed News analysis, FBI spokesman Christopher Allen said that planes may circle over cities while waiting for a suspect to emerge from a building. In some cases, the BuzzFeed News analysis showed that FBI aircraft indeed seemed to be following a vehicle from place to place, pausing to circle at each stop. Other flights, however, circled a single location for several hours, and then returned to their airfields.
Left image shows plane likely following a suspect; right shows repeated circling
As to the big drop-off in flights on the weekends, Allen told BuzzFeed News that the agency’s surveillance depends on the needs of individual investigations.
“If we need it, it’s going to happen,” Allen said. The targets of surveillance may simply be less active on the weekends, he said. And because traffic is lighter, he added, it’s easier for the FBI to follow suspects on the ground instead of by air.
That explanation did not convince James Wedick, a former FBI agent based near Sacramento, California.
“That’s painful,” Wedick told BuzzFeed News. He suspects that the weekend dip reflects the controversial practice of using undercover agents and informants to entice suspects into joining fake terrorist plots devised by the FBI. “The FBI today is better able to control investigations, enabling agents to orchestrate events when more resources were available,” Wedick said.
US Customs and Border Patrol
US Customs and Border Patrol
Courtesy William Larkins
Left: Two DHS aircraft patrol the U.S. border; Center: DHS helicopter, with cameras beneath the cockpit door; Right: Cessna 208, operated by an FBI front company
In June of last year, the Associated Press reported that it had linked more than 50 planes, mostly small Cessna Skylane 182 aircraft, to 13 fake companies created as fronts for the FBI. Also using Flightradar24, AP reporters tracked more than 100 flights in 11 states over the course of a month.
BuzzFeed News extended the list of FBI front companies, drawing from othersources that have investigated the agency’s airborne operations. We then looked for planes registered to these front companies in data provided by Flightradar24. (Its data comes from radio signals broadcast by transponders that reveal planes’ locations and identifying information, picked up by receivers on the ground that are hosted by volunteers across the country.)
We detected nearly 100 FBI fixed-wing planes, mostly small Cessnas, plus about a dozen helicopters. Collectively, they made more than 1,950 flights over our four-month-plus observation period. The aircraft frequently circled or hovered around specific locations, often for several hours in the daytime over urban areas.
We also tracked more than 90 aircraft, about two-thirds of them helicopters, that were registered to the DHS, which is responsible for border protection, customs, and immigration. Not surprisingly, these planes were especially active around border towns such as McAllen, Texas, which faces the Mexican city of Reynosa across the Rio Grande.
But the DHS’s airborne operations also extended far into the U.S. interior. And over some cities, notably Los Angeles, its aircraft seemed to circle around particular locations, behaving like those in the FBI’s fleet.
The DHS would not comment on flights over specific cities, but confirmed that its planes regularly support other law enforcement agencies, including the FBI.
DHS spokesman Carlos Lazo told BuzzFeed News by email that its planes are mainly used to combat the illegal drug trade, human trafficking, and violent crime. In 2015, he said, DHS aerial surveillance missions supported investigations that “resulted in 706 arrests including violent criminals and sex traffickers, the seizure of more than 10,000 lbs of cocaine, 342 lbs of heroin, more than 1,000 lbs of methamphetamine, 350 weapons, and $24 million in cash.”
Regulations require that a plane’s owners submit documents to the Federal Aviation Administration describing modifications that might affect a plane’s airworthiness, and BuzzFeed News obtained thispaperwork for about 130 of the planes identified in our analysis — giving a strong sense of what the aircraft are capable of.
Many FBI Cessnas, for example, are fitted with exhaust mufflers to reduce engine noise. FBI and DHS aircraft carry sophisticated camera systems in steerable mounts that can provide conventional video, night vision, and infrared thermal imaging. These include Talon devices, manufactured by FLIR Systems of Wilsonville, Oregon. The company’s website boasts that these devices “deliver high-resolution imagery day or night.”
On FBI planes, cameras are typically paired with augmented reality systems, which superimpose a variety of information over the video, and can embed the feed from a camera into a wider scene built up from stored satellite images.
This promotional video from Churchill Navigation of Boulder, Colorado, whose systems are installed on FBI surveillance aircraft, explains some of their capabilities.
Over the past few years, news organizations and advocacy groups have also accumulated evidence that some government surveillance planes can carry equipment to track cell phones on the ground.
Federal and local law enforcement agencies are known to use devicescalled cell-site simulators that mimic cell phone towers, emitting powerful signals that trick people’s phones into connecting to them as if they were the real thing. Sometimes called “Stingrays” for the brand name of one popular model, these devices read the unique identification codes of the cell phones that connect to them, and so can be used to track people — even if they are indoors, in dense crowds, or otherwise hidden from view.
Official records indicate that both the DHS and the FBI can connect to cell phones from the air. Documents obtained by Chris Soghoian, principal technologist with the ACLU’s Project on Speech, Privacy, and Technology, show that in 2010 the DHS spent almost $190,000 under a contract that included the purchase of cell-site simulators and an “airborne flight kit” for a Stingray device — consisting of “specialized antennas, antenna mounts, cables and power connections.” The contract also covered training for up to four DHS Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to be instructed on how to operate Stingrays from an aircraft.
Other government spending records, reviewed by BuzzFeed News, show that in 2008 the FBI purchased a Stingray airborne kit for $55,000.
And in March, the San Francisco–based Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) released a series of documents, obtained through a Freedom of Information lawsuit, in which FBI officials discussed the use of cell-site simulators from aircraft. The documents reveal that the agency was unsure how many times the devices had been used, when pressed for information by the Senate judiciary committee.
“I cannot say for certain that the mission numbers are 100% accurate,” one official wrote, noting that so far, five flights involving Stingrays had been identified.
The FBI told BuzzFeed News that cell-site simulators are used very rarely, and only to track suspects. Calls are not intercepted, and personal data is not captured, Allen said.
The DHS declined to comment on how often it used the devices from the air, but Lazo, the department’s spokesman, said the technology provides “invaluable assistance” in hunting down criminal suspects. “Cell-site simulators used by DHS are not used to collect the contents of any communication, including any data contained on the phone itself,” he added.
Still, tracking the movements of specific criminal suspects may entail connecting to the phones of thousands of people who just happen to be nearby. And although governmentpolicies say that information about nontarget phones should be quickly discarded, privacy advocates remain concerned about cell-site simulators, which may not require a warrant in emergency situations.
“In our opinion, any time Stingrays or the like are used, they need to have a warrant based on probable cause,” Nate Cardozo, senior staff attorney with the EFF, told BuzzFeed News.
One of the most sensitive questions surrounding the government’s surveillance flights is whether Muslims are being disproportionately targeted.
Even before San Bernardino, Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump was calling for surveillance of certain mosques. And in the wake of the bombings in Brussels in March, rival Ted Cruz said that surveillance in Muslim neighborhoods should be intensified.
BuzzFeed News mapped mosques and Islamic centers throughout the nation, as detailed in a database maintained by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research in Connecticut. Some mosques were at the center of the circles traced by FBI planes, but BuzzFeed News could see no clear pattern indicating widespread surveillance of mosques.
Privacy advocates argue that all of the flights should be subjected to greater official scrutiny, to ensure that a balance is being struck between effective law enforcement and privacy.
“When people think of surveillance, they think of the NSA, or of specific people being tracked, or mosques being infiltrated,” Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York, told BuzzFeed News. “They aren’t necessarily thinking about planes circling overhead of American cities and doing god knows what. It’s important for people to be aware.”