The United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is operating a fleet of surveillance aircraft over locations within the United States as well as “foreign environments,” according to Jeffrey Stramm special agent in charge of DEA aviation division.
The Administration does not “get warrants for public space surveillance,” Stramm said in a phone call with The Post. He went on to say that this surveillance program is in accordance with Title 21 United States Code.
While Stramm wouldn’t confirm the number of aircraft that make up the fleet, our investigation identified 92 aircraft (as of 2011), much like those belonging to the FBI surveillance fleet. An Office of the Inspector General (OIG) report indicated that the FY2010 budget for DEA aviation operations was $47.6 million. The report also stated that DEA employed 108 Special Agent Pilots as of June 2011.
The DEA surveillance fleet “engage[s] in daily activities,” said Stramm, and “all aviation support requests are initiated by field office supervisors,” according to the OIG report.
The DEA registered 30 aircraft of their fleet to a post office box in Houston, Texas under the corporate name of “Silver Creek Aviation Services,” a company that does not exist beyond registering these aircraft. Another non existent company used for the sake of registering aircraft is “Lindsey Aviation Services,” which houses an additional 10 surveillance aircraft.
This tactic is popular among federal agencies. The FBI registered surveillance aircraft to fake companies such as “FVX Research.” Silver Creek Aviation Services does not appear in Texas public registries or have a web presence beyond aviation registration websites. Stramm explained that registering air assets in this way provides “a level of protection,” against “the bad guys.”
Most of the images of these aircraft show oversized windows which would lend credence to the claim that they are primarily using binoculars and other traditional methods of surveillance and observation. However, while the DEA denies using technology such as the advanced imaging surveillance technology as well as cellphone surveillance technology like StingRay, which is employed by the FBI fleet, photographs of DEA aircraft available online show the same equipment attached to the belly of both agencies aircraft. This advanced imaging technology is capable of monitoring all moving activity, such as cars and pedestrians, within 36 square miles.
The DEA aviation division, unlike that of the FBI, does not allow their aircraft information to be tracked by websites like Flightradar24.com which is used by The Post to ascertain the activities of the FBI fleet and which partially led to the initial discovery in May of this year. By simply requesting either through the Federal Aviation Administration or these public tracking websites themselves, an aircraft owner can block their aircraft from open tracking, as the DEA appears to have done.
The tip that lead to this investigation was from John Wiseman a technologist that, through some techno-sleuthing, tracked a plane registered to Silver Creek Aviation Services despite it’s absence from open flight tracking websites. “I’m picking up mode S/ADS-B pings these aircraft broadcast.” Through this type of tracking Wiseman is usually able to determine aircraft identification, altitude, transponder information as well as location. “I store all the pings in a database so I can go back and ‘hit rewind’ if I learn some new piece of interesting information,” he said. The Post will continue to work with Wiseman on these issues in the future.
One of these aircraft crashed in Westminster, Colorado in January of this year. Local media was intrigued as to why local police rushed out to conceal the tail number of the downed aircraft. It was later made clear that law enforcement and DEA were partners in the mission that ended when the engine of the aircraft failed.
Furthermore, it appears at least one of these aircraft changed hands from U.S. Border Patrol to the DEA. Aircraft N6187Y was deregistered from Border Patrol in 1994 and later registered with DEA. Shifting resources from other national priorities to the War on Drugs is not uncommon.
When asked whether or not these aircraft are used to monitor state sanctioned marijuana activities, the DEA aviation press relations office replied, “not by this office.” This leaves the door open to whether or not surveillance of these activities by field offices is being done with DEA aircraft.
The North Star Post will be submitting Freedom of Information Act requests in order to determine for certain more key details about this domestic and foreign surveillance operation.