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FBI’s Use of Drones for U.S. Surveillance Raises Fears over Privacy, Widening Corporate-Gov’t Ties

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The FBI confirmed this week that drones are carrying out surveillance within the United States. FBI Director Robert Mueller called the drone use “very seldom,” while acknowledging regulations to address privacy concerns have yet to be completed. Meanwhile, in the latest leak of classified National Security Agency material, The Guardian reported Thursday that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has signed off on rules that appear to grant wide latitude to the NSA in retaining and making use of Americans’ private data, rather than “minimizing” its usage. We discuss the latest issues of domestic surveillance with Heidi Boghosian, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild and author of the forthcoming book, “Spying on Democracy: Government Surveillance, Corporate Power and Public Resistance.” Boghosian examines the increasing monitoring of ordinary citizens, and the corporations that work with the government to mine data collected from a wide range of electronic sources.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to other FBI news. The agency acknowledged the use of drones to carry out surveillance within the United States. On Wednesday, under questioning by Republican Senator Chuck Grassley during a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, FBI Director Robert Mueller confirmed the domestic use of drones. He also said the bureau is still drafting regulations to address privacy concerns.

ROBERT MUELLER: We are in the initial stages of doing that, and I will tell you that our footprint is very small. We have very few, and of limited use. And we’re exploring not only the use, but also the necessary guidelines for that use.

SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY: Does the FBI use drones for surveillance on U.S. soil?


SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY: I want to go on to a question—

ROBERT MUELLER: And I—well, let me just put it in context, though.


ROBERT MUELLER: In a very, very minimal way, and very seldom.


AMY GOODMAN: In a statement, Democratic Senator Mark Udall questioned whether drone spying is constitutional, saying, “I am concerned the FBI is deploying drone technology while only being in the 'initial stages' of developing guidelines to protect Americans’ privacy rights,” Udall said.

Meanwhile, in the latest leak of classified NSA material, The Guardian reported Thursday the NSA can keep copies of intercepted communications from or about U.S. citizens if the material contains significant intelligence or evidence of crimes. According to the report, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, or FISA court, signed off on rules that appear to grant wide latitude to the NSA in making use of data, rather than minimizing its usage.

Well, to talk about the issue of domestic surveillance, we’re joined by Heidi Boghosian, whose new book examines increasing monitoring of ordinary citizens, and the corporations that work with governments to mine data collected from a wide range of electronic sources. Heidi Boghosian is executive director of the National Lawyers Guild, co-host of the weekly civil liberties radio show Law and Disorder. Her forthcoming book is called Spying on Democracy: Government Surveillance, Corporate Power and Public Resistance, due out in August.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Heidi. Let’s talk, first, drones, drones over the United States, how they’re used.

HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: Both, I believe, conservative and liberals have been claiming for years that drone use in the United States is rife for abuse. The reason is, they can be made in any size. Researchers at Johns Hopkins are looking into how butterflies move, so that they can craft drones the size of mosquitoes or birds. They have the ability to have infrared cameras on them, heat sensors, and also the ability to stay airborne—they call it “loitering”—for long periods of time. Contractors such as Raytheon and Boeing are working into ways to keep them airborne even longer—the danger, of course, being that with small drones, they can pass in dense urban areas such as New York City into an apartment building, stay there, conduct surveillance. Even now, drones have the capacity, through heat sensors, to determine, I think through a one-foot concrete wall, if people are moving around inside.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you swat a mosquito, you could be charged with damaging government property?

HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: That’s right, a felony offense.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, the defenders of drones might argue that it’s only a difference in technology from a helicopter flying over a scene to use a drone, that there’s no real civil liberties question, unless, as you say, they come into apartments. What’s you’re perspective on the question of, it’s not much different, except for the technology?

HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: It’s very different. Drones do not require a space from which to depart, the way manned vehicles do, so they can be deployed virtually in any area. Furthermore, technology has not kept abreast with developments in the law. And, as was cited earlier, the regulations are really lagging behind. Safeguards about how they can be used need to be developed. There’s a rush right now by military contractors and law enforcement agencies around the country to tell the FAA how they can integrate drones into domestic airspace in the next two years. And billions of dollars have been given to contractors for that purpose.

AMY GOODMAN: In a radio interview in March, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the use of domestic surveillance drones by New York City authorities and the erosion of privacy—he talks about this.

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: It’s just we’re going into a different world, uncharted. And like it or not, what people can do or governments can do is different, and you can, to some extent, control, but you can’t keep the tides from coming in. We’re going to have more visibility and less privacy. I don’t see how you stop that. And it’s not a question of whether I think it’s good or bad; I just don’t see how you could stop that.

AMY GOODMAN: Heidi Boghosian?

HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: It benefits large corporations who have a very snug relationship with government intelligence agencies to develop drones and to deploy them wide-scale over United States airs. Privacy protections—we have a reasonable expectation of privacy in our homes. If small aircraft are flying around and able to monitor us over long periods of time, track us, track our associations, that presents a huge problem.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And this whole issue of corporations and government cooperating on surveillance, you talk about that in your book, not just with drones, but surveillance in general. In your book, you talk about fusion centers. Could you expand on that? What are fusion centers?

HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: Fusion centers were created around 2003 to 2007 as a way to better coordinate intelligence across the country. The problem is they partner with the private sector, the business industry, so they share intelligence with one another. It’s obviously to businesses’ best interest to increase the amount of data that they get, because they are also improving analytics for the government to avail themselves of in order to make sense of the vast amounts of data that’s being collected. So technology is being developed that the government relies on. Big money is pouring into corporations. And in exchange, private sector is giving that information to the government.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to former NSA-CIA Director General Michael Hayden, who oversaw much of the privatization of the NSA from 1999 to 2005. This is him speaking in 2011.

GEN. MICHAEL HAYDEN: We may come to a point where defense is more actively and aggressively defined even for the—even for the private sector, and what is permitted there is something we would never let the private sector do in physical space.

UNIDENTIFIED: That’s interesting.

GEN. MICHAEL HAYDEN: I mean, you look—well, I mean, let me really throw out a bumper sticker for you here: How about a digital Blackwater? OK? I mean, we have privatized certain defense activities, even in physical space. And now you’ve got a new domain in which we don’t have any paths trampled down in the forest in terms of what it is we expect the government or will allow the government to do. And in the past, in our history, when that has happened, private sector expands to fill the empty space. I’m not quite an advocate for that, but these are the kinds of things that are going to be put into play here very, very quickly.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s NSA and CIA director, former, General Michael Hayden, who’s now at the Chertoff Group, talking about digital Blackwater. McConnell, who formerly headed the CIA, is now top guy, had come from and went back to Booz Allen Hamilton.

HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: In fact, a lot of government agencies hire people from the private sector, and vice versa. At DEF CON, the hacker convention every year, you’ll see a lot of government officials there. They rely on individuals with technological expertise. They really need each other. I think one of the dangers is that private sector can operate with impunity in terms of skirting the Constitution. The government needs that. It’s helpful to them.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, in speaking of that, in your book you also talk about some the surveillance of journalists and lawyers, not only by the government, but by the private sector. And you highlight the case of Hewlett-Packard and what it did in 2006 in terms of finding out what the sources of journalists were. If you could talk about that, as well?

HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: It was called the HP scandal. In fact, Hewlett-Packard hired a private contractor—I believe there were two of them—to do what’s called pretexting, which is now illegal in many areas. Basically, they pretended they were someone else, called up, you know, records-keeping places to find out information about prospective—the people who had leaked criticism of HP. We see a lot of that. Private security—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Leaked it to journalists.

HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: Leaked it to journalists, exactly. And we see under the Obama administration an increasingly secret classifying of more information, declassifying fewer documents, and cracking down on journalists, which, of course, goes to the heart of our democracy. Without the free exchange of information, we become a very repressive state.

AMY GOODMAN: We earlier reported today that Max Kelly, the former chief security officer for Facebook, went on to work for—well, since 2010, he’s been working for the NSA.

HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: Right, it’s a close partnership. There’s no two ways about it. And going back to drones, the drone industry lobbied very hard and expended, you know, billions of dollars to push to get drones in the sky very quickly.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about the main thesis of your book, Spying on Democracy, which is what happens to activists—give us examples—and what this means for the future.

HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: When many people say, during the revelations of NSA spying, “I don’t need to worry; I have nothing to hide,” I think it goes to the critical question of: What does the government do with this information? And one of the first things they do is target individuals who challenge not only government policies, but corporate policies. Animal rights activists, environmental activists were labeled the top domestic terrorism threat in 2005. The danger of even getting metadata, where you can track associations and patterns that people engage in, is that those who are critical of the government will be sought out, even criminalized, for engaging in robust speech. And we’ve seen new legislation, such as the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, that in fact does criminalize a lot of First Amendment-protected activities.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And this whole issue of using techniques developed in combat, either against terrorists or against military combatants, to use them to surveil what is, in essence, protected dissent in the country?

HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: A great trend. We’re seeing that also with the use of biometrics. For example, people arrested in Occupy New York City were asked if they would submit to iris scans. Now, we’re also seeing that they were held longer when they said no. But if you go to a hospital, for example, they might ask you to put your palm under a scanner. They’ll say it’s for expediency; you can see the doctor faster. But you’re giving up personal information that is stored. And I think it’s really important to realize all the information gathered electronically or through biometrics is stored and can be accessed and used for purposes other than what it was originally intended for at a point down the road.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about the latest Guardian report regarding the NSA and attorney-client communications. This from The New York Times: “To get their hands on the latest software technology to manipulate and take advantage of large volumes of data, [U.S.] intelligence agencies invest in Silicon Valley start-ups … The sums the N.S.A. spends in Silicon Valley are classified, as is the agency’s total budget, which independent analysts [put at something like] $8 billion to $10 billion a year.” Also, “the American intelligence community has its own in-house venture capital company, In-Q-Tel, financed by the Central Intelligence Agency to invest in high-tech start-ups.” Start with the client-attorney privilege.

HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: Since the events of 9/11, we’ve seen a few developments that allow the government to listen in on what are supposed to be private, privileged conversations between attorneys and their clients. The problem is, organizations such as the Center for Constitutional Rights, the People’s Law Office in Chicago, even the National Lawyers Guild, talk a lot with clients who are critical of the government. The government then has an interest in listening in, monitoring their conversations. It has what we call the chilling effect on free speech. And when you know you’re being listened in on, it inexorably alters the way that you’re going to communicate with your attorney, just as a confidential source talking to a journalist, once suspecting that they’re being monitored, may not be able to speak as freely. So, I think that by going after attorneys and their clients, as well as journalists, it further constricts the exercise of free speech and really goes at the core of our legal system and protection of the rights of anyone, no matter how unpopular to the government, to have a zealous advocate on their behalf.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the use of drones in border enforcement across the country, the southern border especially, obviously it’s increasingly being done. The civil liberties concerns there?

HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: Well, it’s being done in border control and also for things, emergencies such as floods, fires, situations where they claim it’s too dangerous to have a personed aircraft fly over. And I think that the argument that it’s safer, less costly, is something that’s going to allow more and more of these functions to be increasingly taken over. And the FAA has said outright they believe drones should be used increasingly for law enforcement purposes.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, back to Juan’s question at the beginning about corporation-government convergence on spying, most people talk about the government, you know, whether they’re going to be looking at them, but the idea that this is used for corporations to spy, as well?

HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: Corporations are such a huge part of our life and are now developing their own intelligence branches, as well as giving information over to the government. They need to silence their critics quickly and efficiently. And we’ve seen them do that, spying on PETA, spying on the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida.

AMY GOODMAN: Where did you see the spying on the Coalition of Immokalee Workers?

HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: In Florida, Burger King actually used a private security company that infiltrated, monitored Burger King. Even one of Burger King’s vice presidents posted derogatory comments online. And the activists found that out.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you very much, Heidi Boghosian, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild, co-host of the weekly civil liberties radio show Law and Disorder, author the forthcoming book, Spying on Democracy: Government Surveillance, Corporate Power and Public Resistance. It’s due out in August.

This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we remember James Gandolfini with two filmmakers who did two documentaries with him around war. Stay with us.

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