The Boston office of the FBI clammed up when asked if its agents were at the controls of low-flying aircraft making continuous loops over Quincy and abutting communities during all hours of the day and night in recent weeks. But short of towing a colorful banner declaring “FBI Surveillance Operation’’ behind the propeller-driven Cessna aircraft, the answer is pretty obvious. Less obvious is why the FBI has so much trouble deciding what information it can share without compromising its investigations.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the FBI turned increasingly to small aircraft to augment its surveillance capabilities. This is not a state secret. The press has reported that every FBI field office has the capability to launch civilian-style planes equipped with infrared devices and bugging equipment. The FBI’s eyes — and ears — in the sky are used in both counterterrorism and more traditional law enforcement operations, such as drug investigations.
A simple acknowledgment from the FBI that it is engaged in a surveillance operation — if that is indeed the case — would clear the air. Yet wringing such admissions from the FBI has been like getting a compulsive hoarder to give up the floor-to-ceiling stacks of moldy magazines that litter the apartment.
Withholding basic information is unfair to Quincy residents who have expressed numerous concerns to aviation officials and local police about the constant buzzing of aircraft overhead. Some callers complain of losing sleep. Others are rattled by the presence of a mysterious aircraft so close on the heels of the April 15 Boston Marathon bombing. It’s unfair, as well, to the local police who are left holding the bag. Quincy police Captain John Dougan said that the flights are sanctioned by the Federal Aviation Administration. That appears to be the full extent of the knowledge of the department sworn to protect Quincy residents.
“We can speculate all we want,’’ said Dougan. “But we haven’t been notified by any [other] agency.’’
The only logical explanation is a federal law enforcement operation. It’s not as if state environmental officials have taken to the skies to locate illegal sewer hookups that pollute Wollaston Beach. Shellfishermen aren’t suddenly aloft with thermal imaging technology to locate elusive clams along the southern end of the beach. (Besides, would that even work with invertebrates?)
Citizens don’t expect to be privy to information that might jeopardize an important investigation or compromise FBI “assets.’’ But people do expect to be treated like intelligent adults who can handle basic information about an unusual event taking place in front of their eyes, or directly above their heads.
No harm should come of knowing that the FBI or other Homeland Security agency is conducting an investigation or training operation. There isn’t any cover to blow when using a noisy, propeller-driven aircraft that draws the attention of the public and online sleuths who purport to trace the plane’s registration numbers back to the government. Meanwhile, the individual targets would still be none the wiser about the parameters of the operation.
It doesn’t require a high-powered lens to see that the FBI can’t let go of information. A recent congressional hearing suggested a possible lapse in the FBI’s intelligence-sharing with Boston Police regarding the investigation of Marathon bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Yet Richard DesLauriers, head of the FBI’s Boston Division, insisted recently in the Globe that his agents and local officials are “always working shoulder-to-shoulder in times of crisis or in times of big investigations as well as more customary times.’’ Shoulder to shoulder? Cold shoulder seems more like it during the past few weeks in Quincy.
The less the agency shares about its use of aerial surveillance, the more people are likely to fear that they will become the target of FBI fishing expeditions, especially with advances in drone technology. Infrared and see-through imaging have great value in tracking potential terrorists and other malefactors. But they also raise the specters of voyeurism, automated law enforcement, and pervasive invasions of privacy.
Special agent Greg Comcowich of the Boston FBI office said that the agency follows strict guidelines, including the securing of warrants based on probable cause, whether conducting its investigations on land or in the air. But general surveillance of people and vehicles in public spaces entails no such requirements.
Greater Bostonians have shown they can handle a lot since the terrorist attack on April 15. The FBI doesn’t need to treat the public like clueless rubberneckers.
Lawrence Harmon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.