Lawmakers Demand Federal Agencies Stop Spying on Peaceful Protests

Thirty-five members of Congress signed the strongly worded letter sent to the heads of the FBI, DEA, CBP, and National Guard Bureau.
June 9, 2020, 10:00am
Protesters
Image: Aaron Gordon

Thirty-five members of Congress have demanded that multiple federal authorities stop spying on Americans who are peacefully protesting police brutality following the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man.

The move comes after Motherboard identified several instances in which the military and federal agencies flew high-tech surveillance aircraft over protesting cities, including Washington DC and Minneapolis.

"We write to you to express our deep and profound concerns that the surveillance tactics of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the National Guard Bureau, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) during the recent protests across the U.S. are significantly chilling the First Amendment rights of Americans," the letter, co-led by Congresswoman Anna G. Eshoo and Congressman Bobby Rush, reads.

"We demand that you cease any and all surveilling of Americans engaged in peaceful protests," the letter, addressed to the heads of the various previously mentioned agencies, adds. The dozens of signatures include prominent representatives Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, Zoe Lofgren, Tim Ryan, and Ro Khanna.

Do you have evidence of surveillance of protesters? We’d love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Joseph Cox securely on Signal on +44 20 8133 5190, Wickr on josephcox, OTR chat on jfcox@jabber.ccc.de, or email joseph.cox@vice.com.

Last week, as protesters marched in cities across the country, Motherboard found that authorities flew an RC-26B aircraft over Washington DC. This aircraft is a reconnaissance plane carrying infrared and electro-optical cameras, and it has previously been used on counter-narcotic missions and in Iraq and Afghanistan. Authorities also flew an RC-26B over Las Vegas on the same night.

Motherboard also found that a small Cessna 560 belonging to the FBI flew over Washington DC. Various agencies have previously fitted similar aircraft with so-called Dirtboxes; devices that act as cellphone towers and trick phones into giving up their physical location, and sometimes intercept text messages and phone calls. Motherboard verified that CBP flew a Predator drone, an aircraft more commonly associated with hunting terrorists, over Minneapolis after flight enthusiasts spotted the aircraft using flight data.

The letter also points to a Buzzfeed News report that found the DEA had been granted authority to investigate the George Floyd protests.

The letter mentions authorities' previous use of Stingrays, which are also designed to track cellphones, as well as facial recognition and license plate reader technology. The letter then points to the spread of how-to guides on protecting privacy while protesting that media outlets and activists have published or updated recently.

"Americans should not have to take proactive measures to protect themselves from government surveillance before engaging in peaceful demonstration. The fact that the agencies you lead have created an environment in which such headlines are common is, in and of itself, an indication of the chilling effect of government surveillance on law-abiding Americans. For these reasons, we demand you cease surveilling peaceful protests immediately and permanently," the letter adds.

A CBP spokesperson told Motherboard in an emailed statement, "Correspondence between members of Congress and U.S. Customs and Border Protection is handled through official channels and will be addressed directly with the members. However, CBP Air and Marine Operations routinely assists other federal, state, and local entities to augment law enforcement and humanitarian relief efforts. During these events, CBP aircraft (including Unmanned Aircraft Systems) are able to provide live video feed to ground law enforcement, giving them situational awareness, maximizing public safety, and minimizing the threat to personnel and assets. Video and images collected through these Aircraft Systems alone cannot be used to identify a person."

"CBP’s support in communities and cities nationwide has been to protect innocent Americans and help ensure safe and peaceful protests," the statement added.

Wayne Hall, a National Guard Bureau spokesman, told Motherboard in an email, "Gen. Joseph Lengyel has received the letter, however it would be inappropriate for us to comment on interpersonal communications between members of Congress and the Chief of the National Guard Bureau."

"A West Virginia Air National Guard RC-26 aircraft was used to provide situational awareness for District of Columbia National Guardsmen overnight from June 2-3. The mission focused on key federal buildings, infrastructure and lines of communications (e.g. roads, intersections and landmarks) that were observed in order to support local law enforcement. During this mission, no U.S. citizens were specifically monitored," he added.

An FBI spokesperson said in an emailed statement,“The FBI is supporting our state, local, and federal law enforcement partners with maintaining public safety in the communities we serve. Our efforts are focused on identifying, investigating, and disrupting individuals that are inciting violence and engaging in criminal activity. The FBI respects those who are exercising their First Amendment rights, including the right to peacefully protest. The FBI does not conduct surveillance based solely on First Amendment protected activity. The FBI continues to remain steadfast in our mission to protect the American people and uphold the U.S. Constitution."

The DEA declined to comment.

Update: This piece has been updated to include a response from the FBI, CBP, and National Guard Bureau.

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