February 06, 2014

Judge Tells FBI Public Cares About Domestic Drone Use – Process Faster!

By Anne Weismann

FBI Domestic Drone UseFormer FBI Director Robert Mueller’s acknowledgment before Congress last summer that the agency was using drones for domestic surveillance raised a number of questions for CREW.

Looking for answers, we filed a FOIA request with the FBI for documents that would show how the FBI’s drone program was funded, the source of its drones, who provided training, and the FBI’s policy, if any, concerning its use of drones to conduct domestic surveillance. We also asked for expedition in light of the growing public concern with the extent to which federal agencies, including the FBI, are surveilling and collecting significant data about U.S. citizens.

Predictably, the FBI denied there was a basis for expedition and refused to release any documents to CREW. So we sued the agency under the FOIA.

Once in litigation, the parties disagreed over how long the FBI should be given to complete processing CREW’s request, and the Court issued an order requiring the FBI to process its claimed 2,750 pages of responsive documents at a rate of 750 pages per month. Things appeared to be humming along, with the FBI making periodic releases, although much of the information was blacked out. Still, CREW believed the end was in sight until, on the eve of a status report filing deadline, the FBI announced for the first time the number of responsive documents had now jumped to over 7,300 pages – nearly there times its initial estimate.

This was surprising news indeed. The FBI offered no explanation for the change, instead claiming only that because of the increased number of documents, it now needed additional time – until the end of July – to complete processing. Simply, not only would document production be delayed further, we wouldn’t even get to the point where we could raise questions in court about the agency’s unjustifiable reliance on exemptions to the FOIA to withhold relevant documents.

On Tuesday, District Court Judge Gladys Kessler issued an order agreeing with CREW that the FBI must increase its document processing rate to a minimum of 1,500 pages per month.

Most heartening was her recognition of “the intense interest in the public’s concern about the FBI’s use of drones to conduct domestic surveillance.” Judge Kessler clearly sees what the FBI can’t or won’t: using drones to spy on Americans on American soil raises some very troubling questions to which the public deserves answers. With this latest order we are that much closer to learning how the FBI uses drones here at home, and the FBI gets a well deserved reminder when it comes to issues like domestic spying, business as usual will no longer be tolerated.

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