Civics: Domestic Political Surveillance: How Deep Is DoD Involvement?

Patrick Eddington:

Federal players involved in the surveillance included Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Marshals Service, and the DEA. But one particular US government department’s involvement sparked even greater concern: the Department of Defense.

It’s been just less than two years ago that an United States Air Force Inspector General (USAF IG) report on the use of National Guard RC-26B surveillance aircraft against protesters was made public. The propellor driven, twin engine aircraft has been in US military service for many years as an intelligence collection platform, which is precisely the role in which it was used to track Americans engaged in marches and rallies after Floyd’s murder. The USAF IG’s June 2020 report on the RC-26B incidents was contradictory in terms of exactly how much potentially personally identifying data on protesters might have been collected and shared with federal, state, or local law enforcement.

The USAF IG report claimed (pp. 1–2) that “The sensors on the RC-26B can only collect infrared and electro‑optical imagery, and this imagery was not capable of identifying distinguishing personal features of individuals.” Yet deeper in the report (p. 21), the investigators conceded that “Although it is difficult in an urban environment, it appears it would be possible to connect activities to an individual. One witness described developing a ‘pattern of life’ which is a term‐​of‐​art in intelligence practice for following a person or object to discern patterns that allow forecasts of movements of that person or object…That requires some amount of discernibility among objects. For instance, a flight could observe suspicious activity, follow the person, and law enforcement on the ground could be vectored by a control center or by a law enforcement officer on‐​board to the individual….It is important to emphasize here, though, that there is no evidence that such a risk manifested in any of these RC-26B flights.”

Yet a National Guard Bureau white paper on RC-26B capabilities notes that “RC-26B records evidence‐​quality full motion video, and high resolution still frame imagery for use by the law enforcement community, host nations, and other government agencies.” And as the USAF IG report itself noted (p. 50), a plan to use a Phoenix‐​based RC-26B to collect full motion video on protesters to “deter planned/​unplanned demonstrations, protests or looting” did not go as planned because of software compatibility issues between the RC-26B and the Phoenix Multi‐​Agency Coordination Center (MACC). The USAF IG report described the Arizona National Guard operations plan’s counterprotest language as “in‐​artfully worded,” it conceded that “Deterring protests and demonstrations, assuming they are lawful, is not consistent with constitutional rights.” In fact, planning a military operation to disrupt First Amendment protected protests was, in fact, a violation of the rights of Phoenix protesters — contrary to the USAF IG’s assertions at the time.

There are good reasons to question the thoroughness of the USAF IG’s investigation and conclusions in this case, as the Defense Department and its components have a history of spying on domestic protesters.