An AP investigation has forced the FBI to admit that it uses at least 13 dummy corporations with planes like the one shown above to fly low-and-slow aerial spy missions over U.S. cities, capturing video and sometimes cellular signals from 30 cities in 11 states in a recent month.

The agency’s domestic flying operations have garnered headlines before, as when its planes were caught over Baltimore during the recent unrest, or when FBI aircraft tried (and reportedly failed) to assist in catching Faisal Shahzad, the wannabe Times Square bomber. But the Associated Press story suggests the federales are more brazen, and less accountable, than you could even imagine:

The planes’ surveillance equipment is generally used without a judge’s approval, and the FBI said the flights are used for specific, ongoing investigations. The FBI said it uses front companies to protect the safety of the pilots and aircraft. It also shields the identity of the aircraft so that suspects on the ground don’t know they’re being watched by the FBI.

In a recent 30-day period, the agency flew above more than 30 cities in 11 states across the country, an AP review found... Details confirmed by the FBI track closely with published reports since at least 2003 that a government surveillance program might be behind suspicious-looking planes slowly circling neighborhoods.

How’s it done? With a freaking fleet of Cessnas and a simple flight procedure:

The AP traced at least 50 aircraft back to the FBI, and identified more than 100 flights since late April orbiting both major cities and rural areas.

One of the planes, photographed in flight last week by the AP in northern Virginia, bristled with unusual antennas under its fuselage and a camera on its left side. A federal budget document from 2010 mentioned at least 115 planes, including 90 Cessna aircraft, in the FBI’s surveillance fleet...

Most flight patterns occurred in counter-clockwise orbits up to several miles wide and roughly one mile above the ground at slow speeds. A 2003 newsletter from the company FLIR Systems Inc., which makes camera technology such as seen on the planes, described flying slowly in left-handed patterns.

Most of the aircraft registrations, the AP said, are signed by a Robert Lindley, who “is listed as chief executive and has at least three distinct signatures among the companies.” Those would be the “13 front companies that AP identified being actively used by the FBI [and] are registered to post office boxes in Bristow, Virginia,” right by a municipal airport.

The most hilariously shameless part of the FBI’s subterfuge, however, may have come when it begged the AP to protect its dummy corporations:

The FBI asked the AP not to disclose the names of the fake companies it uncovered, saying that would saddle taxpayers with the expense of creating new cover companies to shield the government’s involvement, and could endanger the planes and integrity of the surveillance missions.

The AP laughed that one off. It’s posted a bunch of documents online where you can read the names of all the FBI’s fake companies, including NG Research, the one that did the Baltimore surveillance last month.

[Photo credit: AP Images]

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