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The FBI Has Used Surveillance Drones On U.S. Soil 10 Times Since 2006

It's the first time the bureau has put a number on its controversial use of UAVs.

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In a letter published by U.S. Sen. Rand Paul Thursday night, an FBI official said the bureau has used unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for surveillance in the U.S. 10 times since 2006.

Drone surveillance has been used in eight criminal cases and two national security cases, wrote Stephen Kelly, assistant director of the FBI's Office of Congressional Affairs. The FBI also authorized use in three more unspecified cases, but did not ultimately use the UAVs.

Last month, FBI Director Robert Mueller admitted that surveillance drones are used in the U.S. in a "very, very minimal way." He didn't say how many times they had been used.

An FBI statement later expanded on his remarks, but still did not specify how often drones are used.

"As the Director stated, we have used surveillance aircraft in very limited circumstances to support operations where there was a specific operational need. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) allow us to learn critical information that otherwise would be difficult to obtain without introducing serious risk to law enforcement personnel."

In his letter to Paul, Kelly offers those numbers and adds that drones are never used for "bulk" surveillance — they require FAA, FBI legal counsel, and FBI management approval before use.

In cases where using a UAV for surveillance violates an individual's "reasonable expectation of privacy," the FBI must request a warrant, Kelly said. But "to date, there has been no need for the FBI to seek a search warrant or judicial order in any of the few cases where UAVs have been used."

The only example cited in the letter — and in the FBI's June statement — is the February kidnapping of a 5-year-old boy by Alabama man Jimmy Lee Dykes. At the time, it was widely reported that drones were being used. In June 2011, a UAV owned by the Department of Homeland Security helped end a bizarre 16-hour police standoff with a North Dakota farmer over missing cows.

Paul's office said Thursday that the FBI's correspondence was "not sufficient to answering all of Sen. Paul's questions."

Read the full letter to Paul:

Jessica Testa is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.

Contact Jessica Testa at

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