Jun 19, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Air Force watchdog to review military surveillance of Black Lives Matter protests

Protesters stand with raised fists outside a metal fence
A Black Lives Matter protest in Boston on June 17. Photo: Erin Clark/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The Air Force inspector general is investigating the use of a military reconnaissance plane used to surveil Black Lives Matter protesters in multiple cities, the New York Times first reported and Axios has confirmed.

Driving the news: The top intelligence official at the Department of Defense told Congress last week that he had not received orders from the Trump administration to surveil protesters gathering across the U.S., per the Times.

  • “Given the complex and classified nature of foreign intelligence collection, it is not always readily apparent to the American public how lawful foreign intelligence collection and analysis differs from unlawful intelligence activities rightfully prohibited by U.S. law and D.O.D. policy,” Joseph Kernan, under secretary of defense for intelligence, wrote in a letter to Congress, per the Times.
  • Defense Secretary Mark Esper ordered a review last week of the National Guard’s response to demonstrators across the country, the Times writes.

The big picture: House Democrats on the Oversight Committee have called for the Department of Homeland Security to explain how it surveilled and intimidated peaceful protesters, including with drones and armed, uniformed officers.

  • The Drug Enforcement Administration, via a memo first obtained by BuzzFeed News, was granted temporary powers at the end of May to "enforce federal criminal laws in the wake of protests arising from the death of George Floyd."
  • U.S. Customs and Border Protection sent a drone into Minneapolis in late May to take live footage of protestors at the request of federal law enforcement. The agency then recalled the unmanned predator drone, saying that police deemed it unnecessary. CBP did not specify why officers found the drone unnecessary or which agency requested it initially.

What they're saying: "Following discussions with the Secretary of Defense about shared concerns, the Secretary of the Air Force is conducting an investigation into the use of Air National Guard RC-26 aircraft to support civil authorities during recent protest activity in U.S. cities," General Pat Ryder, Air Force spokesperson said in a statement emailed to Axios. "The investigation is being led by the Air Force Inspector General. It would be inappropriate to comment further at this time due to the ongoing nature of the investigation."

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