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General News    H2'ed 5/18/14

ACLU, Todashev, and Drone Surveillance Concerns

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ACLU sues the FBI and Carmen Ortiz

The American Civil Liberties Union (Massachusetts) recently filed a complaint in the United States District Court of Massachusetts requesting US Attorney Carmen Ortiz and the FBI turn over documents related to the secretive operational structure and function of the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF).

They also demanded other records relating to the shooting of Ibragim Todashev by the FBI in his Florida home in May 2013.

The complaint states the ACLU first attempted to obtain the documents through Freedom of Information Act requests (FOIA), which were ignored with respect to the JTTF records, and denied with regard to the Todashev documentation. At the time of the request in December 2013, the government claimed the release of Todashev's records would potentially compromise the on-going investigation into his death.

According to the ACLU, as the results of the Todashev investigation have since been made public, it believes the government no longer has grounds to refuse access to records in the case.

One aspect of Todashev's case that may be of particular interest to an organization such as the ACLU concerns the level and methods of surveillance placed on him, in the month prior to his death.

Pressure and surveillance

Ibragim Todashev first encountered the FBi on April 20, 2013 when he was questioned about his friendship with Tamerlan Tsarnaev and possible links to the Boston marathon bombings. This initial questioning occurred as a result of an alert generated by the ORION database on Todashev.

Over the next four weeks he was subjected to continual phone calls from Federal agents, and was interrogated several times, often for many hours at the FBI's local Florida office. This pattern was repeated with Todashev's girlfriend, Tatiana Gruzdeva, his estranged wife Reni Manukya, and several of his friends and aquaintances.

The Bureau also placed him under intensive round-the-clock surveillance: a situation of which Todashev himself was well aware.

His girlfriend Tatiana Gruzdeva stated:

'When we left the house, he would point out cars to me. When we go to the workplace or we go hang out with him, he show me in the street, 'Look, look, they're following us.''

Khusen Taramov, a friend of Todashev's, also commented on the Bureau's surveillance:

'When Ibragim was nearby ... three to five cars and we knew it. Every time we go somewhere, they follow us.'

New information indicates that not content with simply monitoring Todashev using traditional methods, the FBI took their surveillance one step further.


According to recently released reports, Todashev was also subject to aerial surveillance, more commonly known as 'drone surveillance.' The admission was made by an Orlando Task Force Officer who had been monitoring Todashev for the previous four weeks, and was reportedly outside his apartment on the night he was killed.

He revealed that when Todashev became involved in an altercation in a carpark (he allegedly knocked another man unconcious), the incident was filmed from above with the use of an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UVA), or drone, whilst officers monitoring from the ground looked on and did nothing.

Regardless of the agents' reasons for inaction, this new detail is important as it leads to an inevitable question. Why was Todashev subject to one of the FBI's most secretive and highly criticized methods of surveillance?

The Bureau barely even acknowleged the existence of its drone program until very recently. It's considered particularly controversial, not least because of the widespread concerns it violates fourth amendment rights. The FBI believes it can conduct drone surveillance without the nuisance of obtaining warrants, and has done so on every mission it has ever flown.

FBI use of UAVs

It was in June 2013 that then FBI director, Robert Mueller, finally admitted before the Senate House Committee the FBI does, in fact, use drones for surveillance over domestic US airspace.

He attempted to allay concerns about the program by insisting the Bureau's drone use is exclusive, stating that:

'our footprint is very small, we have very few and of limited use'

Mueller refused to provide details about the Bureau's operational protocols on the use of drones, how many/what types of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are actually in its possession, or the true cost of the program thus far.

However, on October 30 2013, the U.S. District Court in D.C. ordered the FBI to release its drone documents on a rolling basis to Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington (CREW), who had submitted a Freedom of Information Act request following Mueller's admission. The documents contained high levels of redactions, but appeared to confirm the ex-Director's previous statement on the limited use of drones.

One of those documents was a letter the Bureau had sent to Senator Rand Paul in July 2013, in response to concerns over drone use.

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The author holds a Bsc (hons) Criminal Justice and Social Policy, and has worked extensively within the Criminal Justice System. She now takes a keen interest in investigative journalism with particular emphasis placed on social injustice, the rule (more...)
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