“The FBI’s aviation program is not secret,” bureau spokesman Christopher Allen himself said in 2015.
Buzzfeed notes that Allen’s revelation came after spy planes were spotted flying over Baltimore when protests protests over the death of Freddie Gray in police custody gripped the city.
Though the FBI released 133 pages of documents about its spy planes in September 2015, responding to request under the Freedom of Information Act by the American Civil Liberties Union about the aerial surveillance in Baltimore, the records included 19 pages of redacted flight logs and evidence logs.
Buzzfeed says two of its journalists, staff reporter Peter Aldhous and contributor Charles Seife, requested filed a request last year for a narrower class of records about the spy planes than that which the ACLU requested.
Specifically the reporters sought evidence logs and flight logs rom Aug. 15, 2015, to March 4, 2016, concerning 29 FBI planes that flew in the greater New York area, in California, and in the area of Baltimore and greater Washington, D.C.
Saying that the FBI declined to even confirm or deny whether it has such information, however, Aldhous, Seife and Buzzfeed accused the Justice Department of withholding the records improperly.
The Justice Department has not respond to a request for comment on the complaint. In FOIA lingo, a nonanswer such as the one the bureau gave Buzzfeed is known as a Glomar response, named for a ship the CIA used in 1974 to retrieve a sunken Soviet nuclear submarine.
Filed Monday with a federal judge in Washington, Buzzfeed’s complaint notes that journalists have used aircraft-registration information maintained by the Federal Aviation Administration to determine which planes belong to the FBI and other government agencies.
“In 2015, the Associated Press published an article naming a number of fictitious companies to which planes used by the FBI are registered,” the 6-page complaint states. “Planes registered under the names of those companies are still flown by the FBI today.”
After the police killing of Michael Brown sparked protests in 2014, the FBI also flew surveillance aircraft over Ferguson, Missouri, according to testimony before Congress last year by then-FBI Director James Comey.
Monday’s complaint quotes Comey as saying that the FBI uses aircraft in “predicated investigations to conduct surveillance of people who are under investigation.”
Last year, Buzzfeed reported on FBI planes that circled a mosque attended by one of the perpetrators of the San Bernardino shooting. It also noted that spy planes circled the 2016 Democratic National Convention “more intensely” than they did the GOP event.
Buzzfeed is represented by Marcia Hofmann, an attorney with the San Francisco law firm Zeitgeist Law.
Aldhous, who teaches journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, lives in San Francisco as well.
Seife is a professor of journalism at New York University.