Trump Used Drones to Spy on American Protests

June 20th, 2020 - by Tal Axelrod / The Hill

Trump Admin Used Drones, Helicopters to Surveil George Floyd Protests in 15 Cities

Tal Axelrod / The Hill

 (June 19, 2020) — The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) used helicopters, airplanes and drones in more than 15 cities to watch protests over the killing of George Floyd and obtained more than 270 hours of surveillance.

According to data from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) obtained by The New York Times and confirmed by The Hill, DHS surveilled demonstrations in Dayton, Ohio, New York City, Buffalo, N.Y., and Philadelphia, among other cities. It then sent footage back to control centers managed by Air and Marine Operations, a CBP branch, that was then made available to other federal and local agencies.

The data comes amid a national conversation over the role police and law enforcement should play in dealing with protests, with scrutiny of certain local and federal tactics used during the demonstrations.

The national discussion was thrust into overdrive earlier this month when largely peaceful protesters were forcefully dispersed near the White House complex shortly before President Trump walked to a nearby church for a photo opportunity.

The Air Force inspector general is also probing whether the military inappropriately used a reconnaissance plane to watch over demonstrators in Washington and Minneapolis and the National Guard in the District of Columbia has probed the use of a military helicopter that hovered at low altitudes during another Washington protest. 

CBP denied that any equipment had been used improperly.

“The worst part for me is when we’re made out to be storm troopers,” David Fulcher, the deputy director for air operations at the National Air Security Operations Center in Grand Forks, told the Times, adding that the planes were used to monitor violent acts and arson and that none were armed or used facial recognition technology.

“The legend of the Predator — the all-seeing, all-knowing, hover-outside-your-window Predator — it’s just not accurate,” Fulcher added. “The technology is not there.”

Still, the surveillance has sparked a backlash from House Democrats who say the use of the equipment undercuts the demonstrators’ First Amendment rights.

“This administration has undermined the First Amendment freedoms of Americans of all races who are rightfully protesting George Floyd’s killing,” Democrats said in a letter to acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf. “The deployment of drones and officers to surveil protests is a gross abuse of authority and is particularly chilling when used against Americans who are protesting law enforcement brutality.”

Among the aircrafts used were AS350 helicopters and a Black Hawk helicopter. A predator drone was used twice.

The vast majority of the requests came from federal officials and not local police. The drones were directed to fly no lower than 19,000 feet and could monitor movements of protesters but not discern faces, eyes or hair color or license plates.

“CBP stands united in holding those accountable for the death of Mr. George Floyd, as well as supporting those who participate in lawful protests. We are equally united in ensuring that criminals responsible for burning our cities, looting businesses, and committing countless acts of violence are stopped. We are proud to once again support our law enforcement partners to protect our communities and ensure that the rights of Americans to peacefully protest are protected,” CBP acting Commissioner Mark Morgan said in a statement earlier this month.

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