(Photo by Pixabay user skeeze, used under a Creative Commons license)
During Black Lives Matter protests earlier this month, the FBI used its Cessna Citation jet to record video surveillance, a national news outlet revealed this weekend.
The so-called “spy plane” flew over protests that happened between June 1 and 6, according to Buzzfeed News, and collected controversial video footage even though the agency said it doesn’t monitor such activity protected by the First Amendment.
This type of aircraft, which is normally used to surveil federal drug and gang busts, was also used in Baltimore five years ago during the Freddie Gray protests. In 2015, Technical.ly Baltimore reported on the use of planes that carry surveillance equipment such as video and cellphone tracking technology.
Back in 2015, the FBI provided surveillance at the request of the Baltimore Police Department. Alaina Gertz, a spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) in D.C., told Buzzfeed that “MPD did not request FBI aerial support.”
The jet first flew over protests in D.C. on June 1 after protesters were violently pushed back by police officers for President Donald Trump’s church photo op. American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia (ACLU) and others on behalf of Black Lives Matter DC and individual protestors are suing Trump and U.S. Attorney General William Barr because of this incident and others that happened earlier this month.
“It’s now been well documented that a number of federal agencies wildly overreacted to protests in DC in deeply troubling ways,” Nathan Freed Wessler, an attorney with the ACLU’s Project on Speech, Privacy, and Technology, told BuzzFeed. “To learn that the FBI deployed its state-of-the art surveillance plane to watch these historic protests raises additional troubling questions.”
Buzzfeed reported that the specific jet used to watch D.C. protests is the only one of its kind operated by the FBI and registered under one of the agency’s aliases identified in 2012 as the National Aircraft Leasing Corporation. The jet is equipped with high-tech cameras and viewing consoles that can monitor targets during the day or night and through haze, as well as provide infrared thermal imaging.
The FBI declined to answer any of Buzzfeed’s specific questions, but the agency shared this written statement:
“The FBI is supporting our state, local, and federal law enforcement partners with maintaining public safety in the communities we serve. Our efforts are focused on identifying, investigating, and disrupting individuals that are inciting violence and engaging in criminal activity. The FBI respects those who are exercising their First Amendment rights, including the right to peacefully protest.”
Read more about the rise of high-tech surveillance, and how it amplifies police bias and overreach, in this recent guest post by Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, professor of law at American University.
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