On Thursday Congresswoman Anna G. Eshoo, Congressman Bobby L. Rush, and Senator Ron Wyden demanded an independent investigation into how various government agencies have been surveilling the recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests.
The move comes after multiple instances of government monitoring of the protests, including ones in which Motherboard identified several cases of military and federal agencies flying surveillance aircraft over protesting cities.
"The act of protesting has played a central role in advancing civil rights in our country, and our Constitution protects the right of Americans to engage in peaceful protest unencumbered by government interference," the lawmakers wrote in their letter to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB). The PCLOB is an independent federal agency within the Executive Branch tasked with making sure that the federal government's actions respect privacy and civil liberties. It has the power to access executive agency records, documents, reports, and other relevant materials including classified information.
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"We are, therefore, concerned that the federal government is infringing on this right, and we ask that the [PCLOB] investigate the federal government’s surveillance of recent protests, the legal authorities for that surveillance, the government’s adherence to required procedures in using surveillance equipment, and the chilling effect that federal government surveillance has had on protesters," the lawmakers' letter continued.
In the letter, the lawmakers point to how U.S. Customs and Border Protection deployed various aircraft, including a Predator drone, over U.S. cities; and how the FBI flew its own smaller aircraft above Washington D.C. The letter also mentioned that the Drug Enforcement Administration was granted authority to carry out covert surveillance on protesters responding to the murder of George Floyd, as reported by BuzzFeed News.
The PCLOB explicitly oversees actions of the government that relate to combating terrorism. But the letter argues that "This focus is appropriate for the current wave of protests because President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr have labeled protesters who disagree with them terrorists on multiple occasions."
"Recent surveillance of protests involves serious threats to liberty and requires a thorough investigation. We ask that PCLOB thoroughly investigate, including by holding public hearings, the following issues and issue a public report about its findings," specifically on to what extent agencies surveilled protesters, and what legal authorities agencies used for the monitoring. the letter concludes.
Travis LeBlanc, a board member from the PCLOB, told Motherboard in an email "I am deeply concerned by reports of the federal government’s surveillance of peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters exercising their constitutional rights. As the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, we are empowered to conduct an independent investigation of any such government surveillance and I hope my fellow Board Members will join me in doing so promptly."
Update: This piece has been updated to include comment from LeBlanc.