WASHINGTON – The Air Force inspector general is investigating whether the military improperly used a little-known reconnaissance plane to monitor protests in Washington and Minneapolis this month, the Air Force said on Thursday.
The inquiry was apparently prompted by lawmakers who expressed concerns to Pentagon officials that the use of military surveillance airplanes may have violated the civil liberties of the mostly peaceful protesters demonstrating against the police killings of black Americans.
“Following discussions with the secretary of defense about shared concerns, the secretary of the Air Force is conducting an investigation into the use of Air National Guard RC-26 aircraft to support civil authorities during recent protest activity in U.S. cities,” said Brig. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder, the chief Air Force spokesman.
The deployment of more than 5,000 National Guard members to the nation’s capital, and thousands more to cities across the country to help quell the civil unrest, has cast a harsh spotlight on the National Guard’s response to the protests.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper last week ordered a review of the National Guard’s response, and the new Air Force inquiry is expected to shed light on how and why the secretive RC-26 and some supporting ground units were deployed.
On the morning of June 2, hours after National Guard helicopters harassed crowds of protesters in Washington, National Guard officials informed their commanders that the West Virginia Air National Guard had sent an RC-26B to help observe the protests with “FMV capabilities” — or full-motion video — according to a message seen by the New York Times.
According to one military official familiar with the situation, senior National Guard leaders in Washington could watch the footage recorded from the aircraft on their cellphones in real time.
Documents obtained by the New York Times also showed that a unit from the 188th Wing of the Arkansas Air National Guard was deployed to monitor protests in Minneapolis. Another RC-26 from the Wisconsin Air National Guard was also sent to Minneapolis.