During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday on oversight of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the agency's director Robert Mueller admitted that it is using drones for surveillance in America. Responding to a question from Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) about whether the FBI "owned or currently used drones, and if so, for what purpose," Mueller said that the agency is using drones on U.S. soil for surveillance. As Grassley went to move on to a different question, Mueller interrupted to clarify that drones are only used in a "very, very minimal way, and very seldom."
Mueller's admission comes as the U.S. government and its intelligence agencies are on the defensive following Edward Snowden's revelations about the extent of surveillance programs conducted by the National Security Agency (NSA). In this environment, Mueller's caveat that the FBI seldom uses drones is unlikely to be reassuring to many already concerned about the government's use of drones and its far-reaching surveillance practices.
While it has already been known that other government entities, such as the Department of Homeland Security, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), have used or at least possess drones in the U.S., this is the first time the FBI has admitted using them. When asked whether the FBI had agreements with such government agencies, such as the Department of Defense, to assist them in their use of drones, Mueller responded that he was not certain whether this was the case or not. In addition, when asked by Grassley whether the FBI had "developed a set of policies, procedures, and operational limits on the use of drones and whether or not any privacy impact on American citizens," Mueller said that the agency was still "in the initial stages of doing that."
According to Wired's David Kravets, when Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) asked Mueller to explain what "privacy strictures" were in place to protect the privacy of Americans, the director "was unprepared to answer Feinstein’s questions." Feinstein's own position critical of the threat posed by drones to people's privacy — she called drones the "the greatest threat to the privacy of Americans," but is strongly in favor of the NSA's surveillance programs — is striking in its contradiction. While the use of drones certainly does constitute a grave threat to privacy, so too do the NSA's surveillance programs.
Ultimately, Mueller's reassurances that the FBI is only using drones on U.S. soil very seldomly and that the program "is very narrowly focused on particularized cases and particularized leads," simply raises more questions — about who is being targeted and why, how long the program has been is use and its actual scope, what justification is required for using the drones, etc. Given the vagueness of his answers, and the recent revelations, I think people have a right to be skeptical of them and concerned about the nature of the FBI's drone use.