Confronted with questions about low-flying planes registered to mysterious companies, the FBI has admitted it maintains a fleet of aircraft, registered with bogus names, that it uses for surveillance without warrants. It defends the practice as necessary in its efforts to keep Americans safe. But Americans’ civil liberties need safeguarding, too, and the secret air force sounds like more unjustifiable overreach by a federal agency.

The Associated Press reported last week that it has linked 50 airplanes to the FBI, despite registration under dummy names such as FVX Research, NBR Aviation and PXW Services. Since late April, the news organization documented more than 100 flights in 11 states, covering cities and rural communities. The secretive nature of the program prevents the public from knowing what information the FBI is gathering and what is done with the pictures and data it collects.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has asked FBI director James Comey Jr. to explain the purpose of the air fleet, as well as the technological capabilities of the planes, to the House Judiciary Committee by June 12. While acknowledging the bureau is known to use planes in criminal investigations, Grassley told reporters he has concerns about warrantless intrusion into private and public space, as well as the invention of companies to hide ownership of the planes.

Given Americans’ increasing concern about Big Brother tactics in the endless war on terror, the AP report gives fresh cause for worry.

Sophisticated technology that can help keep Americans safe can also erode fundamental liberties. In short, even watchdogs need watching. The FBI may have very good reasons for what looks like unnecessary deceit. Let’s hear them.

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