Democrats 'demand' Trump administration halt surveillance flights over George Floyd protests

'Without safety, you cannot have progress. You can't have a life, a decent life, in a community,' Attorney General William Barr said Thursday

John T. Bennett
Washington Bureau Chief
Friday 12 June 2020 14:19
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Police racism protests continue in Las Vegas

A group of House Democrats have a demand for Trump administration officials: Immediately ground planes used to surveil protesters on America's streets following the death of George Floyd while in police custody.

The three dozen Democrats allege the FBI flew a Cessna 560 aircraft over Washington, DC, during protests here with equipment sometimes used to collect cell phone data. The bureau and National Guard flew RC-26B aircraft over DC and Las Vegas, they say, with infrared and electro-optical cameras.

What's more, the lawmakers raised concerns about Predator drones, the kinds used in America's post-9/11 conflicts to target violent extremist groups in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, over protests in Minneapolis, San Antonio and Detroit to gather video. The members also raised alarms that the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was given broad authority to "conduct covert surveillance over protesters.

"While the job of law enforcement is to protect Americans, limited actions may be necessary if a demonstration turns violent," the House Democrats wrote to FBI Director Christopher Wray and other Trump administration officials. "However, this authority does not grant the agencies you lead to surveil American citizens or collect vast amounts of personal information."

Donald Trump, during and as the protests have subsided in most major US cities, has defended the action of federal officers and National Guard troops, saying his first responsibility is to keep Americans safe. He also has sharply criticised the protesters, calling them "thugs" and "anarchists" while also defending US citizens' right to peacefully protest.

The president has used the sometimes-violent Floyd death protests to shift to a re-election message built partially on a sales pitch that he is "your president of law and order."

His attorney general, William Barr, on Thursday again made clear how he views his role.

"But now I get to my job, which is safety," he said at an event on police reform, race relations and other topics with Mr Trump in Dallas. "Without safety, you cannot have progress. You can't have a life, a decent life, in a community."

Still, the House Democrats told Mr Wray and other other law enforcement officials that in addition to those surveillance flights "in just the last 10 days, we know that federal agencies, including the ones you lead, have used other technologies to surveil Americans, such as Stingrays, which mimic cell towers to collect location, call, text, and browsing data of nearby cellular devices;5 facial recognition technology; and automated license plate readers."

The members raised "our deep and profound concerns that the surveillance tactics ... during the recent protests across the U.S. are significantly chilling the First Amendment rights of Americans."

"We demand that you cease any and all surveilling of Americans engaged in peaceful protests," they wrote. "Government surveillance has a chilling effect. ... Americans should not have to take proactive measures to protect themselves from government surveillance before engaging in peaceful demonstration."

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