Mystery Planes in the Skies Above Baltimore

Why do government officials believe it appropriate to hide law-enforcement activity from the public?

Adrees Latif / Reuters

In Baltimore, Maryland, where law enforcement officials ought to be doing their utmost to win back the trust of brutalized residents who perceive a conspiracy against them, a shadowy police tactic is stoking more dark suspicions.

Thanks to Benjamin Shayne, an attentive Baltimore resident who noticed strange activity overhead, citizen sleuths have exposed "a previously secret, multi-day campaign of overhead surveillance by city and federal authorities during a period of historic political protest and unrest," the Washington Post reports. "Discovery of the flights—which involved at least two airplanes and the assistance of the FBI—has prompted the American Civil Liberties Union to demand answers about the legal authority for the operations and the reach of the technology used."

Some observers speculate that the planes used infrared technology to capture video images allowing police to track Baltimore residents at night, even in their homes. Others suggest that perhaps they used a device that allowed them to identify cell phones and track movements and the social networks of their owners. (I thought of the time a surveillance plane spied on all of Compton, California.)

The exact purpose of the Baltimore flights is unknown. The government will not reveal what it was doing. And that is unacceptable. Riots can justify unusual restrictions on liberty such as the temporary curfews imposed while order is restored. Had Baltimore police used a plane to help identify looters as they destroyed that CVS I wouldn't object. But a straightforward effort to videotape looters or impose a curfew or close off a particular street is transparent.

The public knows what's going on. It can evaluate the decisions made by local officials, debate them, and hold decisionmakers responsible after the fact.

None of that can happen with regard to these flights. They are operated as if by secret police. The public has no way of evaluating the mission's content, propriety or success. How can the people decide if they want to be governed in this way if they're not even told the substance of policies carried out in their name? And Baltimore's police department is low on the list of government entities that one would trust to avoid abuses while operating under cover of secrecy.

These are the pertinent questions:

  • What was the purpose of those planes?
  • What data did they gather?
  • Who has the data now?
  • How will it be used?
  • How long will it be retained?

The public has a right to know. Withholding answers is anti-democratic, precludes criticism, undermines legitimacy, invites abuses, and stokes conspiracies. And the Obama Administration has a history of these very  transgressions.

A final thought. If these flights were being used to monitor looters or people breaking curfew, why keep them secret? Wouldn't order be enhanced by announcing to everyone in Baltimore that the authorities are watching closely from the sky? There is something about the government's behavior here that stinks to me. The ACLU is demanding answers and if they get them, so will you.