FBI spy planes flew 10 times over Freddie Gray protests: documents

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The FBI deployed at least 10 flights of surveillance planes equipped with advanced aerial surveillance technology, including infrared and night-vision cameras, to monitor the Baltimore riots earlier this year, according to government documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The flights, totaling more than 36 hours and involving at least two planes, occurred over Baltimore from April 29 to May 3, showed the flight logs provided to the ACLU under the Freedom of Information Act. The ACLU, a civil rights group, released the logs to Reuters and other news organizations on Friday.

Half of the flights carried Baltimore police, in addition to FBI officials, and a majority of them occurred at night over Baltimore during several days of civil disorder that followed the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody.

The FBI has previously acknowledged that surveillance flights occurred.

In congressional testimony last week, FBI Director James Comey did not elaborate in detail on how surveillance flights are conducted or approved.

See photos of the protests:

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FBI spy planes flew 10 times over Freddie Gray protests: documents
BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 30: Riot police advance on protesters and media during protests in the Sandtown neighborhood where Freddie Gray was arrested on April 30, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Gray, 25, was arrested for possessing a switch blade knife April 12 outside the Gilmor Houses housing project on Baltimore's west side. According to his attorney, Gray died a week later in the hospital from a severe spinal cord injury he received while in police custody. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 30: Members of the National Guard sit parked in a humvee in the Sandtown neighborhood where Freddie Gray was arrested on April 30, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Gray, 25, was arrested for possessing a switch blade knife April 12 outside the Gilmor Houses housing project on Baltimore's west side. According to his attorney, Gray died a week later in the hospital from a severe spinal cord injury he received while in police custody. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
Community leaders join arms in an effort to clear a crowd from an intersection ahead of a 10 p.m. curfew Thursday, April 30, 2015, in Baltimore. The curfew was imposed after unrest in the city over the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
A message reading "I Love Baltimore" is written across a T-Shirt worn by Rashid Scott as he marches with protesters toward City Hall to demonstrate the police-custody death of Freddie Gray, Thursday, April 30, 2015, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
A protester at left argues with a policeman as police line up in riot gear in the background after a 10 p.m. curfew went into effect Thursday, April 30, 2015, in Baltimore. The curfew was imposed after unrest in the city over the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 29: Riot police monitor protesters near a CVS pharmacy that was looted and burned by rioters on Monday after the funeral of Freddie Gray, on April 29, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Gray, 25, was arrested for possessing a switch blade knife April 12 outside the Gilmor Houses housing project on Baltimore's west side. According to his attorney, Gray died a week later in the hospital from a severe spinal cord injury he received while in police custody. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 29: Protesters argue near a CVS pharmacy that was looted and burned by rioters on Monday after the funeral of Freddie Gray, on April 29, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Gray, 25, was arrested for possessing a switch blade knife April 12 outside the Gilmor Houses housing project on Baltimore's west side. According to his attorney, Gray died a week later in the hospital from a severe spinal cord injury he received while in police custody. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 29: Protesters argue near a CVS pharmacy that was looted and burned by rioters on Monday after the funeral of Freddie Gray, on April 29, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Gray, 25, was arrested for possessing a switch blade knife April 12 outside the Gilmor Houses housing project on Baltimore's west side. According to his attorney, Gray died a week later in the hospital from a severe spinal cord injury he received while in police custody. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
Protestors gather Tuesday, April 28, 2015, in Baltimore. Maryland's governor vowed there would be no repeat of the looting, arson and vandalism that erupted Monday in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 28: Protestors defy curfew in front of police officers the night after citywide riots over the death of Freddie Gray on April 28, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Freddie Gray, 25, was arrested for possessing a switch blade knife April 12 outside the Gilmor Houses housing project on Baltimore's west side. According to his attorney, Gray died a week later in the hospital from a severe spinal cord injury he received while in police custody. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 28: Protestors taunt police officers the night after citywide riots over the death of Freddie Gray on April 28, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Freddie Gray, 25, was arrested for possessing a switch blade knife April 12 outside the Gilmor Houses housing project on Baltimore's west side. According to his attorney, Gray died a week later in the hospital from a severe spinal cord injury he received while in police custody. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)
Baltimore Police Department Commissioner Anthony Batts is illuminated by police lights as he surveys the corner of North and Pennsylvania avenues Thursday, April 30, 2015, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 28: Police enforce a mandatory, city-wide curfew of 10 p.m. near the CVS pharmacy that was set on fire yesterday during rioting after the funeral of Freddie Gray, on April 28, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Gray, 25, was arrested for possessing a switch blade knife April 12 outside the Gilmor Houses housing project on Baltimore's west side. According to his attorney, Gray died a week later in the hospital from a severe spinal cord injury he received while in police custody. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
A man sits on a bicycle in front of a line of police officers in riot gear ahead of a 10 p.m. curfew in the wake of Monday's riots following the funeral for Freddie Gray, Tuesday, April 28, 2015, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 28: Protesters hang out front of riot police minutes before a mandatory, city-wide curfew of 10 p.m. near the CVS pharmacy that was set on fire yesterday during rioting after the funeral of Freddie Gray, on April 28, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Gray, 25, was arrested for possessing a switch blade knife April 12 outside the Gilmor Houses housing project on Baltimore's west side. According to his attorney, Gray died a week later in the hospital from a severe spinal cord injury he received while in police custody. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
Police stand in formation as a curfew approaches, Tuesday, April 28, 2015, in Baltimore, a day after unrest that occurred following Freddie Gray's funeral. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 28: Protestors say the Lord's Prayer beside riot police the night after citywide riots over the death of Freddie Gray on April 28, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Freddie Gray, 25, was arrested for possessing a switch blade knife April 12 outside the Gilmor Houses housing project on Baltimore's west side. According to his attorney, Gray died a week later in the hospital from a severe spinal cord injury he received while in police custody. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)
A protestor faces police enforcing a curfew Tuesday, April 28, 2015, in Baltimore. A line of police behind riot shields hurled smoke grenades and fired pepper balls at dozens of protesters to enforce a citywide curfew. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
A protestor walks through a cloud of tear gas as police in riot gear advance on the crowd after a 10 p.m. curfew went into effect in the wake of Monday's riots following the funeral for Freddie Gray, Tuesday, April 28, 2015, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 28: Riot police depart after forming a barricade and dispensing tear gas near the burned out CVS pharmacy the night after citywide riots over the death of Freddie Gray on April 28, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Freddie Gray, 25, was arrested for possessing a switch blade knife April 12 outside the Gilmor Houses housing project on Baltimore's west side. According to his attorney, Gray died a week later in the hospital from a severe spinal cord injury he received while in police custody. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)
A woman runs for safety as police throw tear gas canisters while enforcing curfew, Tuesday, April 28, 2015, in Baltimore, a day after unrest that occurred following Freddie Gray's funeral. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Protesters attempt to throw a tear gas canister back toward riot police after a 10 p.m. curfew went into effect in the wake of Monday's riots following the funeral for Freddie Gray, Tuesday, April 28, 2015, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
A protestor holds a sign surrounded by smoke Tuesday, April 28, 2015, in Baltimore. A line of police behind riot shields hurled smoke grenades and fired pepper balls at dozens of protesters Tuesday night to enforce a citywide curfew, imposed after the worst outbreak of rioting in Baltimore since 1968. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Members of the National Guard pass through the area where Monday's riots occurred following the funeral for Freddie Gray, after a 10 p.m. curfew went into effect, Tuesday, April 28, 2015, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Montgomery County Police enforce curfew, Wednesday, April 29, 2015, in Baltimore, a day after unrest that occurred following Freddie Gray's funeral. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
State Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, right, D-Baltimore, embraces a protestor while urging the crowd to disperse ahead of a 10 p.m. curfew in the wake of Monday's riots following the funeral for Freddie Gray, Tuesday, April 28, 2015, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 28: Protestors defy curfew and taunt police officers the night after citywide riots over the death of Freddie Gray on April 28, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Freddie Gray, 25, was arrested for possessing a switch blade knife April 12 outside the Gilmor Houses housing project on Baltimore's west side. According to his attorney, Gray died a week later in the hospital from a severe spinal cord injury he received while in police custody. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)
A man is arrested for violating the curfew Tuesday, April 28, 2015, in Baltimore. A line of police behind riot shields hurled smoke grenades and fired pepper balls at dozens of protesters to enforce a citywide curfew. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Members of the National Guard pass through the area where Monday's riots occurred following the funeral for Freddie Gray, after a 10 p.m. curfew went into effect, Tuesday, April 28, 2015, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
A protester throws a tear gas canister back toward riot police after a 10 p.m. curfew went into effect in the wake of Monday's riots following the funeral for Freddie Gray, Tuesday, April 28, 2015, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 28: A protester holds up a sign as police enforce a mandatory, city-wide curfew of 10PM near the CVS pharmacy that was set on fire yesterday during rioting after the funeral of Freddie Gray, on April 28, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Gray, 25, was arrested for possessing a switch blade knife April 12 outside the Gilmor Houses housing project on Baltimore's west side. According to his attorney, Gray died a week later in the hospital from a severe spinal cord injury he received while in police custody. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
Police ride on an armored vehicle through the area where Monday's riots occurred following the funeral for Freddie Gray, after a 10 p.m. curfew went into effect, Tuesday, April 28, 2015, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
A man asks the crowd to back up in front of a line of police officers in riot gear as part of a community effort to disperse the crowd ahead of a 10 p.m. curfew in the wake of Monday's riots following the funeral for Freddie Gray, Tuesday, April 28, 2015, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Vietnam Veteran Robert Valentine, center, prays with crowd members as police stand in riot gear ahead of a 10 p.m. curfew in the wake of Monday's riots following the funeral for Freddie Gray, Tuesday, April 28, 2015, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
A woman runs for safety as police throw tear gas canisters while enforcing curfew, Tuesday, April 28, 2015, in Baltimore, a day after unrest that occurred following Freddie Gray's funeral. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Prince George's County Police enforce curfew, Tuesday, April 28, 2015, in Baltimore, a day after unrest that occurred following Freddie Gray's funeral. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 28: A motorcycle group formed a line in front of the Baltimore riot police the night after citywide riots over the death of Freddie Gray on April 28, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Freddie Gray, 25, was arrested for possessing a switch blade knife April 12 outside the Gilmor Houses housing project on Baltimore's west side. According to his attorney, Gray died a week later in the hospital from a severe spinal cord injury he received while in police custody. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 28: A woman yells at police near the CVS pharmacy that was set on fire yesterday during rioting after the funeral of Freddie Gray, on April 28, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Gray, 25, was arrested for possessing a switch blade knife April 12 outside the Gilmor Houses housing project on Baltimore's west side. According to his attorney, Gray died a week later in the hospital from a severe spinal cord injury he received while in police custody. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 28: A man hugs a friend after being prayed over during a protest near the CVS pharmacy that was set on fire yesterday during rioting after the funeral of Freddie Gray, on April 28, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Gray, 25, was arrested for possessing a switch blade knife April 12 outside the Gilmor Houses housing project on Baltimore's west side. According to his attorney, Gray died a week later in the hospital from a severe spinal cord injury he received while in police custody. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 28: Riot police stand watch over a tire shop during protests near the CVS pharmacy that was burned to the ground yesterday during rioting after the funeral of Freddie Gray, on April 28, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Gray, 25, was arrested for possessing a switch blade knife April 12 outside the Gilmor Houses housing project on Baltimore's west side. According to his attorney, Gray died a week later in the hospital from a severe spinal cord injury he received while in police custody. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
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But he acknowledged that planes were also used at the request of local authorities during protests last year in Ferguson, Missouri, after the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, by a white police officer.

The documents released by the ACLU "fill some of the gaps that we and the public have had about the government's use of surveillance technology on these planes," said Nathan Freed Wessler, a staff attorney at the ACLU, which is concerned about privacy and profiling issues raised by aerial surveillance.

The Baltimore Police Department referred questions about the flights to the FBI.

In a statement to Reuters, FBI spokesman Christopher Allen said each Baltimore flight "produced infrared and day color, full-motion FLIR (forward-looking infrared) video evidence which is maintained in accordance with record retention policies."

An FBI memo dated May 1 described the support provided at the request of the Baltimore authorities.

"The potential for large scale violence and riots throughout the week presents a significant challenge for the Baltimore Police Department for airborne surveillance and observation," the memo noted in its justification of the flights.

One plane used was a Cessna propeller plane that, according to documents from the Federal Aviation Administration, possessed an infrared camera mount and a multi-sensor camera system manufactured by FLIR Systems, an Oregon-based company.

The widespread and largely secretive use of aerial surveillance has drawn attention from Congress, where lawmakers in recent months have pushed the FBI to be more forthcoming about the legal authority and technical scope of such flights.

(Reporting by Dustin Volz; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh Alan Crosby)

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