Originally published at MintPress News.
MINNEAPOLIS — When a friend happened to spot a surveillance flight over his neighborhood, it led Sam Richards, an independent journalist, to uncover a fleet of secret airplanes registered to fake corporations apparently created by the Department of Justice.
While their purpose remains unknown, Richards has uncovered 100 of the aircraft and traced regular flights over major American cities.
Richards, who writes under the nom de plume Sam Renegade, first published his findings on his Twitter account, @MinneapoliSam, before gathering them into a report on Medium. In his report, published on Monday, he outlines how each of the planes is registered to a fake corporation with a three-letter acronym for a name, such as “OBR Leasing,” which doesn’t seem to otherwise exist as a viable business from Internet or public records searches. Richards reveals that dozens of these aircraft, from front corporations like “FVX Research” and “KQM Aviation,” are registered at the same Bristow, Virginia, post office boxes used for planes which are openly registered to the DOJ.
Aerial surveillance over Chicago via secret FBI / DoJ aircraft registered to shell corporations. pic.twitter.com/NT3sfFOSdF
— Sam Richards (@MinneapoliSam) May 25, 2015
Using flight tracking websites, Richards tracked these airplanes’ flights over several major cities, including Minneapolis, Dallas, Chicago, Seattle and Baltimore. Almost all of the aircraft are common models of small planes manufactured by Cessna. The flight patterns, in which the airplanes repeatedly circle part of a city, suggest surveillance activities.
Hey NYC, looks like the FBI was operating a secret nighttime surveillance flight over you. pic.twitter.com/orWdeT1bVJ
— Sam Richards (@MinneapoliSam) May 24, 2015
During and after the recent Baltimore uprising, similar Cessna surveillance flights were spotted over the city, leading the ACLU to seek answers from the DOJ. According to the Washington Post, the FBI has confirmed it loaned planes to the Baltimore Police Department. Renegade’s report remains the first to link all these planes together, however.
Many surveillance flights conducted over Baltimore and surrounding areas, particularly College Park as of late. pic.twitter.com/M5m3HYlNXG
— Sam Richards (@MinneapoliSam) May 25, 2015
MintPress News spoke to Richards, who explained how he discovered this fleet of what may be surveillance planes. He says his interest in aviation goes back to his years working for various companies at the Minneapolis International Airport.
“My buddy the other day sent me a picture from his phone of an aircraft that was flying what we both seemed to think was surveillance over Minneapolis,” he said.
When Richards and his friend compared the registration of the plane they’d spotted to the ones known to have been surveilling Baltimore, they discovered they were registered to fake corporations which could be linked to a known DOJ P.O. box. From there, it became a matter of looking for other planes also registered to these front corporations. Flight tracking sites helped find more, or confirm that the planes are engaged in what appears to be surveillance.
Richards expressed surprise that the government hasn’t gone further to cover its tracks. He said, “It’s all public information. If they’re doing surveillance, you’d think they’d hide it better.”
His report on Medium initially suggested the secret fleet contained at least 62 aircraft, but within a day the number had risen to 100, including a handful of helicopters. Richards maintains a master list of the planes on Pastebin, but he believes more remain to be discovered. Even the current list reveals a staggering number of flights made over U.S. cities.
“They’ve almost all been used within the last month, so this is a huge operation,” said Richards.
The planes spend several days to a week circling a given city, then they’re rerouted to another site. Richards says his Twitter followers speculate that the planes could carry electronic surveillance equipment such as Stingrays, devices that mimic a wireless tower to allow widespread monitoring of smartphones, which areknown to be mounted on airplanes.
As he continues to search for more planes in the fleet, Richards plans to submit a Freedom of Information Act request demanding answers about the purpose of the aircraft. However, he remains skeptical about the government’s willingness to reveal the truth.
“Since they’ve been super secret about how they use the Stingray and all their other tools, I’m probably not going to get much back in that regard,” he said, “but we’ll see.”