Protesters march down the streets during a rally in remembrance of Sandra Bland on July 13, 2020, in Dallas, Texas. e captionPhoto: Cooper Neill (Getty Images)
Nearly two dozen House Democrats signed letters on Friday demanding answers from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Customs and Border Protection regarding the use of aerial surveillance deployed to monitor protesters after the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd in May.
Rep. Anna G. Eshoo and Rep. Bobby Rush, Democrats of California and Illinois, respectively, said in a statement that responses from the FBI and CBP about the surveillance of Americans engaged in First Amendment activities have only “raised more questions.”
Eshoo and Rush wrote to several federal agencies on June 9, including the FBI, CBP, and Drug Enforcement Agency, demanding that each immediately “stop surveillance of peaceful protesters around the country.” Thirty-five members of Congress signed the letter. The FBI’s written response was notable for its “total lack of information,” said lawmakers, who accused the FBI of ignoring the “role of congressional oversight of the Executive Branch, which is enshrined in the constitution.”
Friday’s letter to the FBI indicates the bureau had declined to share information with lawmakers claiming it would “not be appropriate” to share details about “specific operations, methods, and assets.” But the members disagreed with that claim, in response writing: “We believe the FBI can, and must, share some information about recent activities without jeopardizing specific law enforcement investigations.”
Specifically, Eshoo, Rush, and the others are seeking to learn whether the FBI flew aircraft over protests with equipment used for the interception of cellphone location data. The FBI has refused to say. In May, Gizmodo reported on a Predator Drone being flown over Minneapolis protests and Motherboard tracked several traditionally military aircraft, including a reconnaissance plane, flying over protests in June. “Are these press reports accurate?” the letter asks. “If not, please identify the inaccuracies with these press reports.”
It goes on to ask, “For what purpose, and under what legal authority, did the FBI conduct such aerial surveillance?” It also requests that the agency declare what kinds of equipment were used aboard the planes, including whether so-called “dirtboxes” were used—the term for plane-mounted devices previously used in war zones to identify and track cellphone signals.
The lawmakers’ interest in CBP similarly relies on reports of aerial surveillance reported in June. Gizmodo published a searchable map in June analyzing a year’s worth of CBP drone flights. CBP has not responded to multiple requests for comment about the predator drone flights it conducted this summer over Minneapolis, which is farther than 100 miles from the border, the zone CBP is typically authorized to patrol.
A letter to CBP indicates the agency acknowledged flying surveillance drones over U.S. cities “at the request of federal law enforcement,” but it also claimed the flights were unable to monitor activity on the ground due to cloud cover. CBP did not indicate which agency had requested its drones be deployed.
CBP also gave lawmakers information that seemingly contradicts reporting by Motherboard and the New York Times. The Times reported that CBP’s air and marine operations branch had been directed “to provide surveillance of the protests, including demonstrations in Detroit.” Similarly, Motherboard, citing publicly available flight data, reported that a CBP drone had flown “around half a dozen times above or near San Antonio, Texas.” According to the letter, CBP apparently denied conducting surveillance operations over Detroit and San Antonio.
“The reason our Constitution has such critical protections is that government surveillance has a chilling effect on peaceful protests, and Americans should not have to take proactive measures to protect themselves from government surveillance before engaging in peaceful demonstration,” the lawmakers said.