DETROIT – Customs and Border Patrol is pushing back against claims the agency’s air and marine arm used drones to surveil protesters during Detroit’s recent protests against police brutality and racial injustice.
The reaction from the federal agency came after 35 members of Congress, including Detroit Democrats, Reps. Brenda Lawrence (MI-14) and Rashida Tlaib (MI-13), signed a letter to the heads of CBP, FBI, Drug Enforcement Agency and the National Guard demanding answers about the use of aerial surveillance over recent protests in cities across the country.
The letter claimed specifically unmanned predator drones were flown by CBP over Detroit, Minneapolis and San Antonio to capture video of protests and protesters. A claim a CBP spokesperson called false.
“Our U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Air and Marine Operations (AMO) Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Predator aircraft did not fly over Detroit at anytime during the protests,” CBP spokesman Mark Grogan said in a statement.
According to a summary of flight operations over protests between May 29 and June 16, CBP flew two kinds of aerial surveillance aircraft over Detroit for a total of 77.8 hours; the longest surveillance time of any city of the 15 cities listed. Neither of the aircraft in Detroit were predator drones, which were only flown over Minneapolis for roughly two hours.
In Detroit, according to the summary chart, an AS350 helicopter and a C206 plane. Both are commonly used by law enforcement around the country.
The AS350 is equipped with thermal or infrared cameras described in a government report as “Digital High resolution…low light” cameras. The helicopter also has video recording and video downlink abilities to “provide intelligence and communications support that enhance officer safety during high-risk operations and increase covertness during surveillance operations,” according to CBP description of the lightweight helicopter.
The C260 is a single engine plane used to fly over metropolitan areas used to conduct surveillance, tracking and reconnaissance, according to another CBP description page. While there is no mention of any video equipment on board the planes, CBP does describe them as providing “better range and endurance than helicopters, and blend more effectively with local traffic to mask the presence of air surveillance, and avoid detection by potential suspects.”
In their letter, members of Congress also claimed and suggested personal information was collected and potentially disseminated including license plate numbers, cell phone data and images to be used for facial recognition. Both were of concern to Tlaib and Lawrence, the latter also expressed her concern over a lack of notification to protesters they would be surveilled.
Grogan also dismissed the claims of data collection saying none of CBP’s aircraft have facial recognition, license plate readers nor any type of cell phone intercepting technology. He pressed the issue adding the
surveillance aircraft provide “live video feeds to ground based law enforcement officials, giving them situational awareness, maximizing public safety, and minimizing the threat to personnel and assets,” and do not have the ability to “collect” data. CBP also provided a video link to a page with blurry, black and white thermal video of a parking lot labeled June 12 in North Dakota, as an example of the agency’s video surveillance.
In all, CBP aircraft have flown nearly 270 hours above recent nationwide protests or roughly a week and a half of airtime, which CBP officials maintain was to assist city and state law enforcement. Democrats were quick to point to a lack of reporting about aerial surveillance over protesters who rallied against stay-at-home orders including those with armed protesters in Lansing, appearing to question the motives of federal law enforcement.
“CBP stands united in holding those accountable for the death of George Floyd and in supporting lawful, peaceful protests,” Grogan said in his statement. “CBP’s support in communities and cities nationwide is to protect innocent Americans and help ensure safe and peaceful protests.”