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Internal watchdog investigating if Air Force improperly used plane to surveil protests: report

Internal watchdog investigating if Air Force improperly used plane to surveil protests: report
© TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP via Getty Images

The Air Force's inspector general is opening a probe into whether the military improperly used a reconnaissance aircraft to conduct surveillance of the protests in Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis this month, The New York Times reports.

“Following discussions with the secretary of Defense about shared concerns, the secretary of the Air Force is conducting an investigation into the use of Air National Guard RC-26 aircraft to support civil authorities during recent protest activity in U.S. cities,” Air Force spokesman Brigadier Gen. Patrick S. Ryder told the Times.

According to the Times, the Air Force's investigation was prompted by lawmakers who voiced concern to officials at the Pentagon that the possible surveillance violated the civil liberties of demonstrators protesting police brutality and racial inequality after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month.

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The probe comes after the Pentagon said earlier in the week that the country’s intelligence agencies had didn’t spy on any protesters.

Last week, Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperTrump administration pulls out of Open Skies treaty with Russia The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Trump, Biden clash over transition holdup, pandemic plans President is wild card as shutdown fears grow MORE called for a review of the National Guard’s response to the demonstrations. Multiple states mobilized their national guards to help quell the unrest and contain protestors. President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden to nominate Linda Thomas-Greenfield for UN ambassador: reports Scranton dedicates 'Joe Biden Way' to honor president-elect Kasich: Republicans 'either in complete lockstep' or 'afraid' of Trump MORE mobilized federal troops to Washington, D.C. — a move that was met with ire from both his critics and allies. Federal troops used helicopters while in the nation’s capital, flying low to disperse protestors. 

According to the Times, on June 2, National Guard officials told commanders that the West Virginia Air National Guard had sent a RC-26 with “FMV capabilities” to monitor the protests in the District. FMV stands for full-motion video and the RC-26 is a small twin-engine aircraft that is often used for surveillance along the U.S.’s southern border.

Documents obtained by the Times state that an elite Special Operations unit of the Pennsylvania National Guard was mobilized to support the aircraft from the ground, though Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) publicly refused to send the president any national guard troops from the state. 

As a result, it’s unclear what the squad from the Pennsylvania’s 148th Air Support Operations Squadron was doing in D.C. 

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More documents show that a unit from the Arkansas Air National Guard was sent to monitor protests in Minneapolis, with another RC-26 being sent to the city from Wisconsin, the Times says.

Rep. Adam KinzingerAdam Daniel KinzingerGOP lawmaker says colleagues 'waiting' for Trump to come to terms with loss GOP lawmaker: Trump implementing a 'loyalty purge' amid firing of top cybersecurity official House GOP lawmaker: Biden should be recognized as president-elect MORE (R-Ill.), who flies RC-26s for the Wisconsin Air National Guard, has said that he flew a pair of night missions this month in Minneapolis in support of local law enforcement. 

Kinzinger told the Times that the surveillance aircraft was requested by Minnesota Gov. Tim WalzTim WalzThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Trump, Biden clash over transition holdup, pandemic plans Former Minnesota Democratic leader quits party Minnesota to close bars, restaurants, gyms for four weeks: report MORE (D). He explained that the camera used by the plane was powerful enough to make out general features of a person as the plane flew between 4,000 and 20,000 feet, but that it wasn’t capable of reading license plates or using facial recognition software.

“We don’t gather human intelligence on what the protesters are doing,” Kinzinger told the paper. “We don’t collect cellphone data. We don’t harvest or analyze any data. We don’t do any of that.”