Lawmakers question feds’ surveillance of Black Lives Matter protests


Sen. Ron Wyden and other lawmakers fear the federal government’s surveillance of protests is infringing on citizens’ rights.

PORTLAND, OREGON – JULY 25: People gather in protest in front of the Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse in downtown Portland as the city experiences another night of unrest on July 25, 2020 in Portland, Oregon. For over 55 straight nights, protesters in downtown Portland have faced off in often violent clashes with the Portland Police Bureau and, more recently, federal officers. The demonstrations began to honor the life of George Floyd and other black Americans killed by law enforcement and have intensified as the Trump administration called in the federal officers. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and two other U.S. representatives are calling for an investigation into the federal government’s surveillance of recent Black Lives Matter protests. 

In a letter to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, Wyden, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), and Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) claim the federal government’s surveillance is infringing on citizens’ rights to peacefully protest. They’re asking PCLOB to investigate the government’s legal authority for protest surveillance, its adherence to required procedures in using surveillance equipment, and the effect the surveillance has had on protesters. 

The lawmakers cite recent reports from the American Civil Liberties Union, The New York Times, Vice Motherboard, and Buzzfeed News that all claim the federal government is using helicopters, drones and jets to surveil Black Lives Matter protests. 

The letter from lawmakers questions surveillance methods used by the Department of Homeland Security, Federal Protective Services, Customs and Border Protection, the FBI, U.S. Marshals Service, the National Guard, and the Drug Enforcement Administration. 

The U.S. Marshals Service has previously confirmed they flew one of their aircraft over Portland on June 13, 2020. A camera attached to the aircraft took still pictures of protesters, lawmakers said in their letter, but the images did not contain “Personally identifiable information of any kind.” 

“Because several federal agencies have gathered information about protesters, we ask that PCLOB investigate whether these activities infringe on fundamental rights or violate laws,” the lawmakers wrote in their letter. 

In addition to the aerial surveillance, the lawmakers are also concerned about an incident when the Federal Protective Service seized protesters’ cell phones. The request to extract data from the cell phones was denied, but the lawmakers are asking PCLOB to investigate the authority FPS used to confiscate the cellphones in the first place. 

This isn’t the first time lawmakers have raised concerns about federal surveillance at protests. Eshoo, Rush, and other senators and representatives have written to the FBI, National Guard, Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security, and other agencies about the issue. 

In its latest request, lawmakers are asking PCLOB to conduct a thorough investigation and to issue a public report on its findings.  

KOIN 6 news reached out several federal agencies for comment regarding their surveillance methods at recent protests and for their response to the requested investigation.

The Drug Enforcement Administration said they would not give comment on the topic.

The National Guard referred KOIN 6 News to the Air Force Inspector General’s investigation of seven National Guard flights of RC-26B aircraft over protests in Minnesota, Arizona, California, and Washington, D.C. The investigation concluded the flights did not collect personal information on protesters.

We are still waiting to hear back from U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Customs and Border, the FBI, U.S. Marshals Service, and the U.S. Department of Justice.

Read the letter from Sen. Wyden, Rep. Eshoo, and Rep. Rush below:

Below is a collection of several letters sent from lawmakers to federal agencies regarding their surveillance methods during the protests:

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