Congressional Reps Demand Federal Law Enforcement Agencies Stop Surveilling Protesters

from the yep-I'm-sure-they-were-just-waiting-to-be-told-'stop'-before-stoppin dept

Protests linked to the George Floyd killing are still occurring on a daily basis around the nation. With increased citizen activity comes increased police activity. Apparently, police departments can’t handle these protests on their own. In some states, the National Guard has been called in. In others, surveillance tech on loan from federal agencies is being deployed to keep an eyes on protesters.

The DEA apparently doesn’t have enough to do during this current civil unrest, so it has asked permission to spy on protests in hopes of catching someone committing federal crimes. No one asked the DEA to do this. It inserted itself into this situation and apparently couldn’t even find enough DEA agents to volunteer for its First Amendment incursions. A mixture of 25 volunteers and voluntolds are headed to major cities to keep an eye on stuff completely unrelated to the job of drug law enforcement.

Federal agencies have apparently decided the current situation demands an increase in domestic surveillance. A group of 35 federal legislators want to know why. A letter [PDF] sent to the FBI, DEA, National Guard, and CBP lets these agencies know their overseers aren’t exactly impressed with this opportunistic spying. The mini-coalition says the following behavior is unacceptable and possibly inexplicable:

While the job of law enforcement is to protect Americans, limited actions may be necessary if a demonstration turns violent. However, this authority does not grant the agencies you lead to surveil American citizens or collect vast amounts of personal information. Recent press reports indicate that:

• the FBI and National Guard flew RC-26B aircraft equipped with infrared and electro-optical cameras over Washington, D.C. and Las Vegas;

• the FBI may have flown Cessna 560 aircraft equipped with ‘dirtboxes,’ equipment that can collect cell phone location data, over Washington, D.C.;

• the CBP flew Predator drones that collected and disseminated live video feeds over Minneapolis, San Antonio, and Detroit; and

• the DEA was granted broad authority to “conduct covert surveillance” over protesters responding to the death of George Floyd.

That’s just the stuff that’s been documented by journalists. There’s likely other stuff happening too — stuff that no one’s aware of outside of the agencies performing the surveillance. This includes other tech tools agencies use frequently, like Stingray devices, facial recognition software, and license plate readers. All of this being deployed in the general direction of activities protected by the First Amendment isn’t the sort of behavior we want to see from agencies sworn to uphold the Constitution.

The letter notes citizens have responded to the government’s surveillance by taking steps to protect their communications and data, as is evidenced by the surge in encrypted messaging app downloads during recent days. The Congressional reps say this is the direct result of the government’s actions. It’s not acceptable for citizens to feel forced to protect themselves from their supposed protectors.

Americans should not have to take proactive measures to protect themselves from government surveillance before engaging in peaceful demonstration. The fact that the agencies you lead have created an environment in which such headlines are common is, in and of itself, an indication of the chilling effect of government surveillance on law-abiding Americans. For these reasons, we demand you cease surveilling peaceful protests immediately and permanently.

We’ll see if these agencies are willing to listen to their overseers, since they’ve proven unwilling to listen to their employers. The full extent of domestic surveillance during the George Floyd protests likely won’t be revealed until months or years from now. Some will leak out during prosecution of suspected criminals rounded up during protests and riots. Other stuff will be FOIA’ed. A very small amount of information will be delivered by these agencies to members of Congress in public statements and letters. The rest will stay hidden. Whatever isn’t obscured by parallel construction will be hidden under black redaction bars citing handy FOIA exemptions. But it’s undeniable: law enforcement agencies are dying to engage in broad, warrantless surveillance. Flareups around the country are giving them the excuse they need to indulge their baser urges.

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Comments on “Congressional Reps Demand Federal Law Enforcement Agencies Stop Surveilling Protesters”

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32 Comments
This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That One Guy (profile) says:

'... or you'll do what?'

Yeah, the problem with bluffing is that it only works when the other side has a reason to believe that you are serious with your threat/demand and are both willing and able to follow through if pressed. Take that away and all it results in is you making a fool of yourself as the other side calls you on it and exposes that it was nothing but an empty threat/demand.

They can demand that the agencies stop spying on the public all they want, and it’s certainly better to have public disapproval than not, but I’m pretty sure both they and the agencies involved know that it’s a toothless demand at best, and that the most the agencies are likely to face for ignoring them is wasting some time ignoring questions and more angry letters about how they better shape up or else.

I do see a potential silver lining though(two in fact), in that increased use of encryption will make it harder to spy on the public on a whim, and that same spying is likely to stoke the fires of people who are already angry and potentially lead to even more effort into making it that little bit more difficult for it to be done in the future.

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Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Yellin' at Other People's Kids Not to Play Ball in the Stree

Power of the purse. Congress controls the money the Executive spends. Not that these 35 can exert that type of control on their own, but with a lot of hard work they might influence some others. Getting past the Senate will be a big problem, at least in its current formulation. That might, however, be different in 6 months or so. Here’s hoping.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Yellin' at Other People's Kids Not to Play Ball in the Stree

"various LEO agencies of the Executive Branch"

I too am curious about these unmarked, unidentified, "security" forces that recently appeared out of the mist to defend the white house from the people that government is supposed to "represent". Are these private mercenaries? I was unaware that the white house was authorized to implement their own personal armed forces against the people of this nation.

Not really sure what your question is … rhetorical maybe.

Upstream (profile) says:

Where do I start?

unrelated to the job of drug law enforcement.

And also unrelated to the concept of a free society.

A group of 35 federal legislators want to know why.

This tells us a lot about the ≤506 other federal legislators. Granted, maybe the 35 shouldn’t have made it a largely performative demand, but rather simply a public statement of outrage.

this authority does not grant the agencies you lead to surveil American citizens

This tells us the 35 federal legislators need a proof-reader.

the surge in encrypted messaging app downloads during recent days.

This is a great sign! Encryption should be the default!

It’s not acceptable for citizens to feel forced to protect themselves from their supposed protectors.

Americans should not have to take proactive measures to protect themselves from government surveillance

Again, this shouldn’t be an issue because it should be the norm, just as opaque paper envelopes are the norm..

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Bloof (profile) says:

They’ll stop using drones and return to tried and true methods, planting infiltrators in left wing groups they can use to instigate violence, sabotage popular community outreach programs to justify raids, you know like giving kids free breakfasts, and identify smart, capable people within the leadership they can murder to make the groups implode. Ask the black panthers, they can attest to how effective these tactics can be.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
MathFox says:

Asking for equal rights is subversive?

Looking at all the action of all the agencies involved it seems that some people in the establishment are panicking about the demand for equal rights (to live) for black people. If that concept is revolutionary to the US, I must start looking for another country or organization to give directions to what freedom should be.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Asking for equal rights is subversive?

"…it seems that some people in the establishment are panicking about the demand for equal rights (to live) for black people. If that concept is revolutionary to the US, I must start looking for another country or organization to give directions to what freedom should be."

Sadly, it is. It all dates back to the civil war which, although it was indeed fought over slavery, was never fought over equality. Basically the struggle stood between those who thought of black people as property and those who thought of them as simply a lesser race. Even Lincoln, in his most liberal moments, only came to advocate that a black person should be considered about 60% of a white person.

You could say that it was a war between slavers and white supremacists which the supremacists won.
And that history is important because almost all the drudge work on actual equality has, essentially, been made in the last 60 years or so.

So yes, essentially the concept of equality is revolutionary in the US.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Asking for equal rights is subversive?

"Jim Crow never went away, it went dark."

Why bother with obvious and open legislative bigotry when you have a mos maiorum passed down in which your evaluation as a citizen and human being is inversely proportional to the amount of skin melanophores you have? Or perhaps worse and more insidious by far, explicitly informs you it’s a bad societal move to acknowledge the existence of that bias.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Dismantle the police state

And politics aside they’d do that anyway. A bunch of protestors is the low-hanging fruit because it’s all too easy to grab an easy collar and build a case around how dangerous those subversives are when you have the tacit approval of the highest authority in the land to do just that.

Mid-level unscrupulous managers have never been in short supply anywhere. Though it’s disheartening every time you see it within law enforcement.

Anonymous Coward says:

I hope the police and anyone and everyone else records these people and the crimes they commit and each and every one of them arrested and thrown into jail as soon as they figure out who these people are. Takes time by going just going with a picture or video of whose these people are. Destroying lives of even black people’s small businesses. It’s pretty disgusting.

DeComposer (profile) says:

I'm all for defunding the DEA

Misspent money, redirected to highly questionable activity, all in service to a misguided program.

Legislators need to take a long, hard look at funding priorities. If drugs are a "problem," interdiction and enforcement have shown themselves to be ineffective, catastrophic failures.

Maybe this mission creep is the DEA’s way of trying to achieve relevance.

Ed says:

Happy Problems Have Happy Solutions

I have to wonder if some of the rioting was actually instigated by the feds in order to create the "necessity" excuse for mass public surveillance. After all, the Trump Crime Family and its erected minions do have a fascist agenda that requires mass public surveillance to succeed. Sadly, due to the secretive and more often criminal nature of the current fascist regime in control of the American Federal Government, we will likely never know.

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