The FBI has told Congress it does not need to get a warrant to conduct surveillance with drones, in a letter laying out some of the top federal law enforcement agency’s policies for how it uses unmanned aerial vehicles.
In a July 19 letter to Sen. Rand Paul, Stephen D. Kelly, assistant director for the FBI’s congressional liaison office, said the agency has used drones in 10 instances, including twice for “national security” cases and eight times for criminal cases. The FBI authorized the use of drones in three other criminal cases but didn’t deploy them.
Then, in a follow-up letter Mr. Paul released Monday, Mr. Kelly said they don’t believe they ever need to obtain a warrant to conduct drone surveillance as long as it’s done within guidelines.
He said they take their lead from several Supreme Court cases that don’t deal directly with drones but do cover manned aerial surveillance. In those cases the court ruled that a long as the areas observed were in public view and no law enforcement officer was trespassing, no privacy rights were violated.
In one case a concurring opinion by one of the justices said that there could be a problem if an agency were conducting long-term warrantless surveillance of someone in public, because that could constitute an unreasonable search in violation of the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment.
“We do not use UAVs to undertake such surveillance,” Mr. Kelly said.
Mr. Paul had been holding up the nomination of James B. Comey Jr. to become the new FBI director, using the blockade as a way to try to force the administration to divulge more information on the FBI’s drone surveillance.
Current Director Robert S. Mueller III revealed the agency’s use of drones in a congressional hearing earlier this summer.