Silicon Valley reps demand answers about government surveillance at protests
Protesters clashed with San Jose police during the third day of protests Sunday over the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man. Photo by Luke Johnson.

    WASHINGTON, D.C. — Silicon Valley’s congressional delegation wants answers about whether the federal government unlawfully surveilled residents during the recent nationwide protests calling for police reform.

    Rep. Anna Eshoo of Palo Alto and Rep. Bobby Rush of Illinois penned a letter last month — sent to the National Guard Bureau, Drug Enforcement Administration, Federal Bureau of Investigations and the United States Customs and Border Protection — sharing their concerns about the alleged government surveillance being reported by some media outlets. The representatives received unhelpful responses from the FBI and the CBP, according to a news release from Eshoo’s office.

    Eshoo and Rush are now demanding answers in separate follow-up letters to these two agencies. The letters, which were shared in the release, were signed by 21 other Democratic members of Congress, including Rep. Ro Khanna of Fremont and Rep. Zoe Lofgren of San Jose.

    “The First and Fourth Amendments protect protesters from government surveillance,” both letters state. “The reason our Constitution has such critical protections is that government surveillance has a chilling effect on peaceful protests, and Americans should not have to take proactive measures to protect themselves from government surveillance before engaging in peaceful demonstration.”

    Among other questions, the letter to the FBI asks for a detailed list of every aircraft the agency has flown over or near protests in the U.S. since May 25, and whether these aircraft were equipped with any surveillance equipment, such as rangefinders, thermal imaging devices, facial recognition technology, video surveillance systems, radio frequency sensors or other telecommunications interception equipment.

    “The total lack of information in your (previous response) letter ignores the important role of congressional oversight of the Executive Branch, which is enshrined in the Constitution,” it states. “We believe the FBI can, and must, share some information about recent activities without jeopardizing specific law enforcement investigations.”

    The letter to the CBP asks for more details regarding the unmanned aircraft system the agency flew over Minneapolis on May 29, such as the exact surveillance equipment that was on board and whether any information the CBP gained was shared with other federal, state, local, tribal or international agencies.

    The representatives additionally inquired about the accuracy of two media reports from last month: An article from The New York Times stating that the Justice Department directed the CBP to provide surveillance of the demonstrations in Detroit, and an article from Vice Motherboard stating that a CBP-108 was recently flown above San Antonio.

    The news release also shared both agencies initial response letters. Jill Tyson, an assistant director for the FBI’s Office of Congressional Affairs, responded to the first letter from the representatives on July 2. She said the violent actions of some protesters compromised the safety of others.

    “The FBI is committed to identifying, apprehending, and supporting prosecutions of violent instigators who exploit legitimate, peaceful protests and engage in violations of federal law,” she wrote.

    Tyson added that it would be inappropriate to disclose sensitive information about specific operations or methods.

    Mark Morgan, the CBP’s chief operating officer, responded to the representatives’ first letter on July 1. His letter explained that the CBP flew an unmanned aircraft system over Minneapolis for about two hours on May 29, but was unable to observe any activities on the ground due to cloudy conditions.

    “CBP’s UAS helps to enhance situational awareness and increase public and officer safety by providing aerial support to officers on the ground,” Morgan wrote. “…The imaging systems onboard these aircraft alone cannot be used to identify a person.”

    His letter states that the CBP did not fly an unmanned aircraft system over Detroit or San Antonio during those demonstrations.

    Both of the representatives’ follow-up letters request a response by July 31.

    George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, was killed in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. His death sparked international outcry and ongoing demands for police reform. Some of the protests, particularly those in major cities like Atlanta, Minneapolis and Washington D.C., turned violent when police and protesters clashed.

    San Jose was no exception. Thousands took part in marches and sit-ins throughout Santa Clara County. Some of the protests remained peaceful. Others became chaotic, with police making arrests and firing rubber bullets into the crowds.

    Silicon Valley’s representatives have stood firmly behind the protesters. During a House Judiciary Committee hearing last month, Lofgren credited the activists for bringing attention to an important cause.

    “African Americans have been mistreated in many cases in many communities by law enforcement,” she said. “…I think (the protests for George Floyd) have opened the eyes of Americans across the United States about the need for reform.”

    Khanna has also praised the protesters for their dedication.

    “Peaceful protests are the hallmark of any democracy,” he wrote in a Jun. 18 Twitter post. “We should be thrilled to see so many Americans taking to the street to voice their concerns. That’s how we create and sustain this movement.”

    Contact Katie King at [email protected] or follow @KatieKingCST on Twitter.


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