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US Air Force investigates use of Air National Guard surveillance aircraft at protests
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US Air Force investigates use of Air National Guard surveillance aircraft at protests

The US Air Force announced on Thursday that their inspector general would be opening an investigation into whether reconnaissance aircraft had been improperly deployed to surveil protests in Washington D.C. and Minneapolis earlier this month.

The New York Times reports that it has seen messages indicating that on the morning of June 2 the West Virginia Air National Guard deployed an RC-26B surveillance aircraft with full-motion video capabilities to fly over protests in Washington D.C. In addition, according to documents uncovered by the Times, a special operations unit of the Pennsylvania National Guard provided ground support to the air mission, despite the fact that Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf had rejected a Defense Department request to send National Guard troops to the capital.

The documents also showed that an RC-26 from the Wisconsin Air National Guard was sent to fly over protests in Minneapolis, supported by a unit from the Arkansas National Guard. Adam Kinzinger, a Republican representative from Illinois, apparently flew two of those missions, transmitting live video of protest activities. Chris Murphy, Democratic senator from Connecticut, tweeted about the Washington flights on June 4, which led to the grounding of the flights and prompted a frustrated response from Kinzinger who claimed the planes “weren’t gathering intel or spying. Only have a camera.”

The revelation of the surveillance flights follows just days after Joseph Kernan, undersecretary of defense for intelligence and security, sent a letter to Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, stating unequivocally that neither the Trump Administration nor the Department of Defense (DoD) had issued any request “to undertake any unlawful or inappropriate intelligence activities that could violate civil liberties in association with the domestic civil disturbances.”

Kernan’s letter was written in response to a letter Schiff had sent to him, in which Schiff had expressed concern over the “sudden and impulsive manner in which the Armed Forces and law enforcement components from across the federal government ha[d] been mobilized,” and reminded the undersecretary that, “It is precisely because of past abuses of power and illegal or inappropriate activities by IC [Intelligence Community] agencies that Congressional oversight of the IC was established.”

Monica Matoush, spokeswoman for House Democrats on the Armed Services Committee, said that committee members had been informed of the flights and that they were asking the DoD to answer questions about “the asset(s) used, their mission, who authorized it and what authorities were used to authorize its use.”