Pentagon Report Deems "Covert Surveillance" Aircraft Flown Over George Floyd Protests Legal

The Pentagon is defending its use of military aircraft to conduct surveillance on the large crowds of demonstrators and in some cases riots which enveloped multiple cities connected with George Floyd's death. A new investigation has exonerated the National Guard after allegations it illegally gathered intelligence on Americans.

It was previously revealed that the National Guard used reconnaissance planes to fly over at least four US cities in order to gather data on growing protests in late May and early June, crucially at a moment President Trump was urging greater action in ensuring law and order in the protest and vandalism-hit cities.

RC-26 spy plane with infrared and electro-optical cameras flew over protests Washington, DC, and Las Vegas on June 2 in the United States. Source: Al Jazeera via EFE/EPA

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he never personally approved of the program to fly the reconnaissance aircraft over the protests, but National Guard officials say they didn't need higher approval given it was just for observing crowd sizes and to probe if any emergencies such as large fires were unfolding, according to their account.

The Associated Press reported of the new Pentagon findings out Friday - the result of an Air Force inspector general investigation ordered by Esper:

The investigation by the Air Force inspector general found that the planes were used to gather information about crowd size, crowd flows and fires but they did not monitor individuals. The probe was ordered by Defense Secretary Mark Esper in response to questions within the department and Congress about whether the military illegally conducted surveillance of American citizens during the unrest after the death of George Floyd.

It's certainly an interesting distinction that's somewhat disturbing in terms of precedent, regardless of the fact that in many instances the protests produced dangerous and deadly riots and caused widespread destruction (which, it should be noted, is a matter for local and state authorities, and even the FBI - but not military intelligence). 

Via AP/VOA: This image from video released by the Department of Defense show a scene on a street as captured by a RC-26 flying over Minneapolis, on June 4, 2020.

Essentially the argument appears to be that protests can be monitored using national intelligence means and assets so long as it is groups or crowds being observed, and not individuals.

The AP continues:

The investigation reviewed seven flights by the aircraft in Minnesota, Arizona, California and Washington, D.C. If found that while the sensors on the aircraft could show buildings and vehicles, they “were not capable of identifying any distinguishing features of people” and they did not have the capability of collecting information from cellphones or radios.

The legal argument also appears centered on the technological capabilities outfitted on the aircraft, with the conclusion that if domestic communications can't be picked up, it's permitted.

Specifically the aircraft involved was the RC-26 spy plane, but there were also widespread reports that federal and local agencies used drones, including the US Drug Enforcement Agency, which was authorized to "conduct covert surveillance" of the protests, according to the Trump administration. 

Regardless of the issue being protested, this creates a disturbing precedent. Recall for example, the large-scale protests against Obama's preparations to bomb Syria in August and September of 2013. Should there be any future mass anti-war demonstrations which gain steam in the US, for example, will the Pentagon conduct intelligence gathering missions on these too?