Air Force inspector general investigating use of military aircraft to monitor protesters

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Demonstrators march as they protest the death of George Floyd, Tuesday, June 2, 2020, in Washington. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON (CNN) — The Air Force inspector general is investigating the use of military aircraft to monitor protesters during recent unrest across the country, according to an Air Force spokesperson.

“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,” said Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder.

“The investigation is being led by the Air Force Inspector General,” he added. “It would be inappropriate to comment further at this time due to the ongoing nature of the investigation.”

The New York Times first reported the news of the investigation.

Last week, CNN reviewed flight path data showing an RC-26B — a twin-engine turboprop typically used by the FBI and the National Guard for drug interdiction — over Washington, DC, and Las Vegas. A National Guard fact sheet says the same type of plane is normally outfitted for thermal imaging and “can be used both day and night to monitor illegal activity.”

The plane was one of several aircraft — both piloted and unpiloted — that CNN has been able to track flying over protests in Washington, Minneapolis and Las Vegas. Government watchdogs fear the planes — typically equipped with live video cameras and heat sensors — were used to track protesters and perhaps capture cell phone data.

Nearly three dozen Democrats in Congress sent a June 9 letter to the heads of the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Customs and Border Protection and the National Guard asking whether the planes were used for “surveilling of Americans engaged in peaceful protests” and demanding an end to the practice “immediately and permanently.” They called the use of aircraft above protests a “deep and profound” breach of Americans’ First and Fourth Amendment rights.

In a statement to CNN when asked about the flights, the FBI said it has been “focused on identifying, investigating, and disrupting individuals that are inciting violence and engaging in criminal activity.”

Potential monitoring by military planes wouldn’t be the first aircraft practice used on protesting civilians that has sparked oversight efforts in recent days. On Wednesday, the preliminary results of a National Guard investigation found a lack of clarity in orders played a significant role in a medical evacuation helicopter flying at extremely low altitude over protesters in the nation’s capital earlier this month, according to two defense officials.

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