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FBI uses drones on US soil: Senators want assurances on privacy (+video)

FBI Director Robert Mueller told the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday that the FBI is using drones to conduct secret surveillance on US citizens. Many lawmakers seemed surprised.

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / June 19, 2013

FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 19, 2013, before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on national security matters. As Mueller nears the end of his 12 years as head of the law enforcement agency, lawmakers questioned him about the IRS, surveillance activities, and the Boston Marathon bombing. (AP Photo/)

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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Washington

Even as President Obama was calling for prudence in the use of drones Wednesday to an audience in Berlin, over on Capitol Hill came new revelations that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been using drones to conduct secret surveillance on US citizens.

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The disclosure came during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in which FBI Director Robert Mueller was asked whether his agency is considering buying drones – and if so, how it’s planning on using them.

The FBI already uses drones to conduct surveillance, Mr. Mueller told lawmakers, many of whom seemed surprised to hear this.

Striking an optimistic note, Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa offered, “I think I can assume since you do use drones that the FBI has developed a set of policies and procedures and operational limits on the use of drones and whether or not [they have] any privacy impact on American citizens.”

“We are in the initial stages of doing that,” Mueller replied.

Absorbing this information, Senator Grassley wanted to know whether the FBI uses drones “for surveillance on US soil.”

“Yes,” was Mueller’s reply.

Mueller then endeavored to provide context, stressing that drones are used “in a very, very minimal way – and very seldom.”

At the moment, the “footprint” for the drones is “very small,” he added. “We have very few and [they are] of limited use, and we’re exploring not only the use but also the necessary guidelines for that use.”

What, precisely, are those guidelines?, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California wanted to know.

On this point, Mueller didn’t appear to have many specifics. 

“It’s generally used in a particular incident, were you to need that capability,” he said. “I will have to go back and check in terms of what we keep in terms of images and the like.”

In one of the only known public cases, the FBI used surveillance drones round-the-clock this past February to monitor the scene of a kidnapping standoff in Alabama before hostage rescue teams moved in.

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