FBI confirms it’s behind ‘mystery plane’

In this photo taken May 26, 2015, a small plane flies near Manassas Regional Airport in Manassas, Va. The plane is among a fleet of surveillance aircraft by the FBI, which are primarily used to target suspects under federal investigation. Andrew Harnik | AP

Not surprisingly, it’s been confirmed the FBI is behind the “mystery plane” that has occasionally circled areas of the Twin Cities in recent weeks.

The FBI confirmed to the Associated Press that the flights, which operate without a judge’s order, are being used for “ongoing investigations” and the companies that own the aircraft are fronts for the government.

The FBI confirmed for the first time the wide-scale use of the aircraft, which the AP traced to at least 13 fake companies, such as FVX Research, KQM Aviation, NBR Aviation and PXW Services. Even basic aspects of the program are withheld from the public in censored versions of official reports from the Justice Department’s inspector general.

“The FBI’s aviation program is not secret,” spokesman Christopher Allen said in a statement. “Specific aircraft and their capabilities are protected for operational security purposes.” Allen added that the FBI’s planes “are not equipped, designed or used for bulk collection activities or mass surveillance.”

But the planes can capture video of unrelated criminal activity on the ground that could be handed over for prosecutions.

Some of the aircraft can also be equipped with technology that can identify thousands of people below through the cellphones they carry, even if they’re not making a call or in public. Officials said that practice, which mimics cell towers into coughing up basic subscriber information, is rare.

The FBI’s likely role in the flights, which have occurred over more than 30 cities in the last month, seemed to be confirmed earlier when an FBI spokesman assured inquiring media that the flights weren’t violating anyone’s civil rights, suggesting it knew what the planes were doing.

In confirming the existence of the surveillance program, the FBI apparently asked the AP to keep a lid on some of the information (see documents).

The FBI asked the AP not to disclose the names of the fake companies it uncovered, saying that would saddle taxpayers with the expense of creating new cover companies to shield the government’s involvement, and could endanger the planes and integrity of the surveillance missions. The AP declined the FBI’s request because the companies’ names — as well as common addresses linked to the Justice Department — are listed on public documents and in government databases.

At least 13 front companies that AP identified being actively used by the FBI are registered to post office boxes in Bristow, Virginia, which is near a regional airport used for private and charter flights. Only one of them appears in state business records.

That’s all information that had previously been revealed by independent bloggers.

The route of the aircraft over Minneapolis suggests a specific individual or individuals were targeted by the plane. In one seven-hour flight, it circled a location over Glencoe, then Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park, and finally moved to the Mall of America area before landing at Eden Prairie’s Flying Cloud Airport.

Using a tracking system operated by the Metropolitan Airports Commission, an area pilot determined the targeted locations:

• Lyn-Lake, Phillips, Southdale, MOA (5/22)
• Glencoe, Savage, Burnsville (5/23)
• Glencoe (5/27)
• Glencoe, Brooklyn Center, Bloomington, (5/28)
• Glencoe (5/30 AM)

The plane is no longer in the area and has returned to the Chicago area, where it’s believed to be based at Dupage airport.