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House Committee wants to know why the government flew a Predator drone over Minneapolis protests

The U.S. House Oversight Committee is requesting information and documents from DHS.

The U.S. House Oversight Committee wants an explanation to why the federal government flew a drone, called Predator B, over Minneapolis during the George Floyd protests in late May, according to a news release

"The deployment of drones and officers to surveil protests is a gross abuse of authority and is particularly chilling when used against Americans who are protesting law enforcement brutality," the Committee wrote in a June 5 letter to Acting Secretary of the federal Department Homeland Security Chad Wolf. 

The letter is signed by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (DFL-New York), Rep. Jamie Raskin (DFL-Maryland), Rep. Stephen Lynch (DFL-Massachusetts), Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (DFL-New York) and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (DFL-Massachusetts).

"We write with grave concern about the use of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) resources — including drones and armed uniformed officers — to surveil and intimidate peaceful protesters who were exercising their First Amendment rights to protest the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department," the letter begins. 

The letter says on May 29, the Project on Government Oversight reported a Predator drone was circling over Minneapolis at about 20,000 feet above the protests after taking off from Grand Forks Air Force Base. 

This type of drone, according to the letter, captures "full-motion video and synthetic-aperture radar imagery for surveillance." This drone is primarily used to "counter illicit crossborder activities along the northern and southern borders," although it has been used domestically for things like humanitarian, emergency and recovery operations.

The use of the drone was confirmed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in a news release on May 29. CBP said, "After arriving into the Minneapolis airspace, the requesting agency determined that the aircraft was no longer needed for operational awareness and departed back to Grand Forks." 

At the time, ACLU Senior Legislative Counsel Neema Singh Guliani said in a statement to Gizmodo

“No government agency should be facilitating the over-policing of the Black community, period. And CBP has no role in what’s happening in Minneapolis at all. This rogue agency’s use of military technology to surveil protesters inside U.S. borders is deeply disturbing, especially given CBP’s lack of clear and strong policies to protect privacy and constitutional rights. This agency’s use of drones over the city should be halted immediately.”

The Committee's letter says the drone was reportedly also flown outside CBP's jurisdiction, which according to federal law, should not exceed 100 air miles inland from the U.S. border. 

Minneapolis is nearly 300 driving miles from the Canadian border.

They want to know where else DHS is using surveillance

The letter states DHS confirmed last week CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement
(ICE) officers would be deployed across the country to help monitor protests.

"This news is particularly alarming given that, for almost a year, the Committee has been investigating racist, sexist, and xenophobic comments made by CBP employees in secret Facebook groups," the letter states. "CBP has been obstructing the Committee’s investigation, and CBP employees who made inappropriate and threatening comments may still be on the job and deployed to silence protesters exercising their Constitutional rights."

In addition to calling out the use of surveillance drones and other surveillance by DHS, the letter requests the agency to produce documents and information related to its surveillance by June 11. It also seeks a briefing to Committee staff by June 15.

Among the information and documents the committee is requesting: a list of jurisdictions DHS conducted or assisted in conducting surveillance on protests; who requested the assistance and why; whether DHS collected any data during its surveillance and who that data will be shared with; whether the drone video used facial recognition technology and why was it used; how much it cost in each jurisdiction; the legal justification for CBP conducting surveillance more than 100 air miles from the border; a complete list of jurisdictions where DHS has deployed or plans to deploy officers to assist in policing protests since May 25; and all communication related to the requests the Committee is making.

The U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform has the authority to make these requests. Under U.S. House of Representative rules, the Committee has the broad authority to investigate "any matter" at "any time."

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