An airplane linked to an FBI surveillance program that tracks alleged terrorists, spies and criminals has flown at least seven times over Metro Detroit, including two lengthy flights over the Dearborn area last weekend, according to public records.
The 2010 single-engine Cessna Skylane is part of a small air force operated by the FBI that uses high-tech cameras and sometimes cellphone surveillance technology. An Associated Press investigation in June revealed that the FBI had flown more than 100 flights in 11 states over a 30-day period.
Flight data reviewed by The Detroit News shows increased flights over Metro Detroit in the past week with prolonged surveillance over Dearborn, a city heavily populated by Muslims and Middle Eastern residents. In all, the FBI surveillance plane has flown over Metro Detroit seven times since Friday, according to the website FlightRadar24.com.
The flights raise questions about whether the FBI’s investigation is terror-related. It also raises concerns about privacy violations because of surveillance technology that often does not require a judge’s approval.
“There may be a concern about unjust, persistent surveillance of Muslim communities in Michigan that already have reasons to be uncomfortable with some police tactics,” said Nathan Freed Wessler, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union’s speech, privacy and technology project in New York.
“That community is owed a full and transparent explanation of what law enforcement is doing to ensure this was not some mass surveillance effort of an already targeted community.”
The flights have so concerned Muslim community activist Dawud Walid that he plans to complain this week to the House Judiciary Committee.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit and the FBI declined comment about the recent flights.
The 2010 Cessna is registered to a company called OTV Leasing of Bristow, Va. The registration, like other aircraft included in the AP investigation, is linked to a bank of post office boxes in Bristow.
OTV Leasing was among at least 13 fake companies used by the FBI that were identified during the AP investigation.
The chief executive of OTV Leasing is listed on aircraft records as Robert Lindley. The AP reported that Lindley is listed as CEO of several other front companies, and has at least three distinct signatures on aircraft records. The FBI did not disclose to the AP whether Lindley was a U.S. government employee; the news agency could not reach him for comment.
In a 30-day period, an AP review found, the FBI flew above more than 30 cities in 11 states, including parts of Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Minneapolis, Phoenix and Seattle, as well as southern California.
The FBI told Congress in 2010 it had at least 115 planes.
The FBI’s aviation program is not classified and is used to follow terrorists, spies and criminals, FBI Deputy Director Mark Giuliano said in a statement following the AP investigation.
According to the AP probe, the planes are equipped with high-tech cameras and, in rare instances, technology that allows the FBI to track thousands of cellphones.
The FBI said the aircraft are not equipped, designed or used for bulk collection or mass surveillance. Neither are they routinely equipped with technology that mimics cell towers and lets the FBI locate and intercept communications from cell phones and wireless devices.
“We have an obligation to follow those people who want to hurt our country and its citizens, and we will continue to do so,” Giuliano said in a June statement.
Last weekend’s flights in Dearborn fit a pattern used by the FBI in other cities, including in May in Baltimore following riots after the death of a black man, Freddie Gray, who was injured while in police custody.
The Cessna flew over the Dearborn area in slow-speed, counterclockwise orbits several miles wide and about one mile above the ground.
The Cessna’s orbits late Saturday and late Sunday were nearly identical, bordered by Michigan Avenue to the north, Telegraph Road to the west, Ecorse Road to the south and Greenfield Road to the east.
Each night, the Cessna made 19 nearly identical loops over the Dearborn area and neighboring communities, including parts of Dearborn Heights, Allen Park, Taylor and Melvindale.
Focus of surveillance
The center of the surveillance area is near the Dearborn Public Schools building on Audette, east of West Outer Drive.
At 5:51 p.m. Saturday, the four-seat Cessna, white with a splash of red on the nose and tail, first appeared on radar flying over a neighborhood of $300,000 homes in Harrison Township, north of Metro Parkway in Macomb County.
The plane zigzagged over the community and neighboring Clinton Township before flying south and cutting west across Hamtramck and Detroit.
By 7:32 p.m., the Cessna was in Dearborn.
The plane spent more than 90 minutes making 19 loops, covering an area that includes several landmarks, including Greenfield Village, Ford Motor Co.’s Dearborn Development Center, Edsel Ford High School and the American Muslim Center on West Outer Drive.
“This just feeds into the thought of many of us in the Muslim community leadership that the FBI claims to want to have good relationships with Muslims and be transparent in the light of day, and then they are spying and snooping on us under the cover of night,” said Walid, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
He was unaware of the flights until being told by The News.
“If the FBI is, in fact, tracking one particular suspect for any type of crime, be it gang-related, drug trafficking or violent extremism, that is OK, but history informs us the FBI has been involved in mass surveillance and racial and religious mapping of communities of color,” Walid said.
On Wednesday, Walid sent an email to a lawyer for House Judiciary Committee member U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit, asking if the congressman can investigate the flights. Conyers’ district includes several communities along the FBI plane’s flight path, including Detroit, Dearborn Heights and Melvindale.
“Under the guise of national security, our government claims to be surveilling certain suspect communities but in reality, they are collecting data and invading the privacy of all Americans,” Walid said.
“If we look at the recent history of domestic terrorism and who are the primary perpetrators, we see that it’s not Muslims in metropolitan Detroit,” he added.
The FBI did not alert Dearborn Police before, or after, the flights.
Dearborn police unaware
“I don’t know anything about this,” Police Chief Ronald Haddad said. “I can only be concerned when I learn something about it.”
The Cessna left Dearborn just after 9 p.m. Saturday and headed north before disappearing from radar minutes later in Bloomfield Township. In all, the plane spent 46 percent of its flight time circling over the same Dearborn area after traveling to and from the location.
On Sunday, the Cessna popped up on the radar in at 6:33 p.m. over White Lake Township and the Pontiac Lake Recreation Area.
Local police were unaware of the FBI flight.
“To my knowledge, (the FBI) did not contact the White Lake Township Police Department,” Lt. Daniel Keller told The News. “I don’t have any knowledge of them calling up and advising us that they would do so.”
The plane flew in a zigzag pattern — through Waterford Township and into northern Oakland County, cut through Pontiac, soared over Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Hills and looped through Lathrup Village and Southfield before heading south.
The Cessna was back in Dearborn by 7:42 p.m.
Like the night before, the fixed-wing plane made 19 loops around the same part of Dearborn before flying north by 9:41 p.m. The plane disappeared from radar over Lake Sherwood, just north of Proud Lake State Recreation Area in Commerce Township.
In all, about 60 percent of the plane’s flight time was spent in the low, slow, counterclockwise loop above Dearborn and surrounding communities.
A second Cessna Skylane linked to the FBI’s aviation program, meanwhile, flew across Metro Detroit on July 29. The Cessna showed up on radar northeast of downtown Pontiac before flying east during an 11-minute flight that ended when the plane disappeared from radar over Lake St. Clair.
Unlike the Dearborn area flights, the Cessna did not orbit over any one area during the brief trip.