Air Force IG Investigates Use Of Surveillance Planes In Protests


The Air Force’s Office of Inspector General is investigating whether Air National Guard units were improperly used to monitor Black Lives Matter protests in Washington and Minneapolis. The investigation comes after politicians expressed concern to the Pentagon about the flights, which were captured by flight tracking websites, and their potential to violate the civil liberties of the mostly law-abiding protesters. “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,” Brig. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder, the chief Air Force spokesman, said in response to questions from The New York Times.

The RC-26 is a highly modified Metroliner with a sensor pod that is normally used to support the Department of Homeland Security, Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection for drug enforcement, and other interdictions. After the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis May 25, flight tracking sites tracked the RC-26 over Washington and a Cessna Citation with a “dirt box” used for gathering cellphone data over Minneapolis. The Pentagon has told Congress that it does not spy on U.S. citizens on U.S. soil and Joseph D. Kernan, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence and security, told the House Intelligence Committee there were no orders from the White House to conduct such flights.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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    • Silly….”Civil Rights” are defined by the “ACLU” not politicians… Shhesh. ( insert smiley here_____)

  1. Sauce for the goose. I wonder if _now_ the FAA will do something about encrypting/anonymizing the ADS-B/out squit. It’s bad enough that anyone with $50 can throw together a receiver that uploads to the Web all the air traffic in their region, including tail number:
    There’s absolutely no reason why that information should be available (and with one more automated Web lookup, my home address) to anyone but ATC.

  2. “The Pentagon has told Congress that it does not spy on U.S. citizens on U.S. soil…”

    When US citizens decide to become domestic terrorists and loot, riot, and destroy businesses, and hide among legitimate protestors using gorilla-style tactics, I feel they have forfeited their rights under the US Constitution. Monitor away! No impropriety here.

    • That’s what local and state law enforcement are for. Why stop with looting and rioting, why not murder and every day burglaries? Are people committing those crimes also forfeiting their rights under the Constitution? Be very careful with what you wish for. We are heading on a very steep glide path to a police state.

      • Where in the constitution can you find a right NOT to be observed while out in public? Seriously. If I can see you and watch you eating a hot dog – or looting a jewelry store – why can government officials not do the same?

        • Yars, you’re not that naive. Maybe ignorant, but not naive.

          These aircraft are not “observing”. They are collecting/searching/storing data.

          • “They are collecting/searching/storing data.”
            About what they OBSERVE.
            Please forgive my ignorance. It’s congenital.

      • KenS. – with regards to “murder and burglaries” – those who attempt such crimes should not survive the attempt ….. period ….. just sayin’ ……
        p.s. they wouldn’t at my place of business or residence.

    • J Scott L:

      You’ve got to be careful with those trying to use gorilla-style tactics…charging at their enemies, grunting, and beating their chests.

      Now, guerilla-style tactics on the other hand are just fine.

      Also, the beautiful thing about the US constitution is that it always applies to you on US soil. There’s no way to forfeit your rights. You can waive them for specific instances, some are limited in some circumstances, but the constitution still applies no matter what you’re doing. That’s kinda the point.

      • “ the US constitution is that it always applies to you on US soil.”

        The nature of the soil does not matter. What matters, is the nature of a government to recognize certain unalienable rights.

      • Yars,

        You don’t use a RC-26 to “observe”. A C150 would easily suffice.

        You use a RC-26 and other type aircraft to collect data. And in this case, data that you have no warrant to collect.

        One has no more legal authority to “observe” what’s in my wallet (papers and effects) without warrant or cause, than they do my cell phone(papers and effects).

        Unless of course, you believe that the Fourth Amendment applies only to parchment and horse drawn wagons.

        This is not conflating the collection of information. Information of an individual, his person papers and effects, is to be protected.

        Or should I say, was to be protected. I guess it’s now perfectly OK so long as it’s used for “bad guys”.

        • So, you’re asserting that the government is reading my paper pocket diary, from 5,000 feet AGL?

          Why not simply read my mind? It sounds like that would be easier.

    • Are they spying on only the domestic terrorists that loot, riot, and destroy businesses?

      Or are they spying on everyone in a certain radius including legitimate protestors, people walking their dog and going to the grocery store?

  3. The District of Columbia is not a “state.” DC also has something called the “Flight Restricted Zone” above it, as well as other terrestrial based restrictions.

    Now you know why.

    • These “sensor pods” are not used in surveying open public spaces.

      They are surveilling person, papers and effects without warrant.

        • Yars,

          Please do a google search for Edward Snowden, PRISM, MAINWAY, TURBINE, the “Utah Data Center” and the James Clapper March 12, 2013 testimony during a United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing.

          • How does a sensor pod in an overhead aircraft unlawfully surveill papers and effects?

            As for Clapper, NOTHING that comes out of his mouth is believable. He repeatedly purgered himself in his senate testimony.

            Snowden is either a patriot or a traitor – depending upon your politics.

            As for the others, you’re purposefully conflating the collection of information (observations) with its subsequent (mis-) use.

  4. RC-26, DHS, other interdictions, open public spaces – the investigation will likely turn up nothing wrong, and rightfully so. Much the same function as a police helicopter. Citation gathering cell phone data – not mentioned as part of the investigation. Hmmm.

  5. What about all those security cams out there? Topple them! Topple them while toppling statues. Keep the “team” busy.

  6. Did Avweb just say “mostly law-abiding protesters”? So, since most are “mostly law-abiding protesters,” ignoring those that are burning, looting, and mayhem should be the operating procedure. Here’s some advice: Stay away from divisive politics.

  7. Have some people forgotten that the NATIONAL GUARD was deployed to control the violence in Minneapolis, BECAUSE THE POLICE COULDN’T CONTROL THE SITUATION? These are not “mostly law-abiding protesters”–entire city blocks were looted and burned.

    Since the Governor DID deploy the National Guard–doesn’t it make sense that the Guard is authorized to use all of the assets at their disposal–including NATIONAL GUARD AIRCRAFT? The Governor deployed the Guard–he didn’t put restrictions on them. I can hear it now–“You can deploy people, but no weapons.” “You can deploy people with non-lethal weapons.” “You can have lethal weapons.”

    Seems strange that they can have armored MRAPs, but an unarmed surveillance aircraft to help them do their job is supposed to be prohibited? These same people concerned about an unarmed Metroliner never mentioned the armed Guard armed helicopters ALSO deployed.

    Bring back mandatory Federal Service. People have no idea any more of what the military can or should do.

    • Bring back effective discipline for five-year-olds. We won’t have to deal with so many “adult” miscreants.

  8. We have a paper Constitution that is memorialized in Philadelphia. In practicality, it is has been incrementally ignored, purposefully re-interpreted by the judicial system, purposefully manipulated after lawyers and politicians set precedence with ever specific and targeted laws followed with legal challenges and inevitable appeals. It’s the current US “system”.

    For example, the National Guard was never designed to help maintain “domestic tranquility” and constitutionally, was prevented from becoming or performing the function of the local and state police through Posse Comitatus Act (PCA) established in 1878 except at the orders of state governors or specially designated state officials authorized by those governors. After the National Defense Authorization Act 2007, signed into law on December 31, 2007, enacted 1/1/2008, buried in the 1700+ pages of the NDAA was the provision for the President to directly control and order the national Guard into any domestic action, including disaster relief, riot control, and doing whatever is necessary or ordered to keep and maintain domestic tranquility without the consent of Congress or the state governors. The President can make those decisions independent of any oversight, scrutiny, or advice by anyone ( military or civilian) should he decide he wants to commit the ANG or National Guard. Considering that many of the units are overseas fighting alongside our regular military, the President has essentially complete control of those reserve units do do what he pleases and when. In practicality, the President now controls a large portion of the active military. The NDAA was authorized in 1961 to have the job of organizing our military budget. But modern politics adds all sorts of rider bills within these established laws/bills effectively providing “midnight legislation” for a huge host of political agendas. That 2007 NDAA has the signatures of the who’s who of conservative politicians at the time signing alongside the liberal politicians. The modern NDAA has effectively neutered the Constitution including the Bill of Rights in practical application.

    Having worked on the RC-12 ( King Air version) and the RC-26 ( Metroliner), these airplanes have capabilities of data mining that is nothing short of amazing. But so does your “Smartmeter”, “Smartphone”, Google, FB, your local grocery store plastic key ring coupon swipe, water meters, traffic light cameras, surveillance cameras, OnStar, Sirius XM Satellite, pilot apps, ADS-B, GPS, OBD-II ( your on board car diagnostics), credit cards, internet provider, QualCom, PeoplesNet ( for the truckers out there)…the list is almost endless and growing. Many local police helos have similar capabilities as the RC-12/26 but they certainly do not have the range, loiter capability, and quiet airborne signature a turbine has when doing “interdiction”.

    So getting our undies all wadded up firing conservative vs liberal salvos back and forth is absolutely useless. The US is not a republic anymore. It is a democracy. It has been this way a long time. We are now reaping what we have allowed to be sown over the last 100-120 years. Like the frog eventually allowing to be boiled, because we have grown accustomed to our “surroundings” allowing long term, back room, midnight legislation that has transformed our country from a republic to a democracy.

    With a democracy, the majority rules. And if the majority sanctions through its vote of elected politicians euthanasia, pedophilia, National Guard usage in maintaining domestic tranquility, or the ANG looking at you determining the exact location of which bathroom you are using at any given time, including if you are standing or sitting, those activities would become law, legal, and enforceable.

    We have no real Constitution in functionality. It is a toothless tiger memorialized in a Pennsylvania museum. While we are drawn to constitutional debates designed to make us feel good that we have some sort of control, or at the very least, checks and balances in these tens of thousands of laws and bills, those are nothing more than distractions to what is really going on in DC.

    Ben Franklin said upon completion of the Constitution ” we give you a republic…as long as you want to keep it.”

    I am concerned (an understatement) the silent majority will have had enough, and become a law unto itself, setting the stage for a cure worse than the disease of apathy and complacency that got us into this mess. In the meantime, I am going flying, with my ADS-B Out proclaiming my position in real time, while my Smartmeter records all the activities of our household, and Walmart uses all my purchasing data arranging with China what I am likely to purchase next. Besides, all the traffic surveillance cameras have already recorded me leaving my driveway, taken a picture of my mug and license plate, noting my route to the airport.

    Is the addition of an RC-12/26 overhead adding any more details? Only if I am adding to my daily activities rioting or looting on my way to the airport or maybe got on the Old Dodge pick up and broke the speed limit as the four barrel kicked in.

  9. Someone is concerned about our civil liberties??????? Really???. These protests that block streets and keep me and millions of people from moving about freely IN OUR CARS, in a supposedly FREE country are NOT PEACEFUL. CRACK DOWN ON STREET TERROR AND STOP WORRYING ABOUT AIRCRAFT FLYING OVER THUGS AND COMMUNISTS.

  10. Are you advocating for anarchy? MOST of us live by the law–and if the law gets out of hand, we have procedures for redress. These are not “Protests”–Looting, burning, destruction of property, shootings, injuries, death–these are against the law–and there are procedures to allow the law to handle it.

    Our Governor took the unusual step in calling in the National Guard–armed with deadly force. Having an aerial component for surveillance should be the LEAST that the looters should worry about–I don’t think these unarmed aircraft (whether drones, helicopters, or pressurized turboprops) cause worry to the anarchists.

    Those of us who aren’t part of the looting applaud the use of surveillance devices to apprehend the lawless.

    • “Are you advocating for anarchy?”

      Why yes, you got me, of course that’s what I’m advocating for.

      The OP suggest that we “should not worry” about aircraft that fly over cities to collect personal data. After all, “these” are thugs and communist.

      What the OP does not realize, is that those same aircraft are collecting his data, along with the “thugs and communist”….he and they are one in the same.

      “MOST of us live by the law”

      First of all, “most of us” do not get to decide if we are living by the law; that decision is not left to us. That decision is usually made by an officer of the law. The next time you get pulled over for speeding, just inform the officer that you are the one who gets to decide if you were speeding or not.

      Further no. “MOST” of us do not live by the law. You can not describe 5 things you’ve done in the last 5 months that were not regulated by law, statute or ordinance. Somewhere in the thousands of volumes of rules and regulations…the odds of you going astray of the law if not on a daily basis, at least weekly are very high.

      So no, I’m not advocating anarchy. I do ask; why do we need a law for every single facet of our lives?

      And you may abdicate all the rights you want for the sake of security, but please do it in North Korea..leave my rights intact.

  11. “I’m not advocating anarchy. I do ask; why do we need a law for every single facet of our lives?”

    But you don’t seem to want those who HAVE committed crimes investigated and prosecuted–including the use of surveillance equipment ordered up by the Minnesota Governor.

    We seem to agree that there are too many laws. Apparently, you agree with those of us who applaud Trump’s Executive Order #13771–directing government agencies to repeal TWO existing regulations for every new regulation……”

    You seem to have a problem in the use of this non-deadly force in enforcing laws–NOT petty crimes, but laws like arson, rioting, murder, looting, robbery, assault, vandalism………all of which affect innocent people living there–their property, and quality of life.

    You say “I’m not advocating anarchy”–yet what IS anarchy? It is “A state of disorder due to absence or nonrecognition of authority.” I can think of no better definition of anarchy than the crimes created in Minneapolis and other cities that the National Guard was tasked to stop.

    • “But you don’t seem to want those who HAVE committed crimes investigated and prosecuted–

      Absolutely not Jim. Investigate. Prosecute away.

      But in the process of these “investigations”, shall we suspend the Fourth Amendment? While we’re at it, why not the Second? Hell, just declare martial law, throw the bill of rights out the window. After all, “we” have nothing to worry about because “they” are going after the “bad guys” and we all know we’re the “good guys”-we got nothing to worry about.

      “You seem to have a problem in the use of this non-deadly force in enforcing laws–“

      And in the process of enforcing the law, some may have trampled Constitutional rights. You seem to advocate in giving up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety- and you deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

      You’re free to pursue your form of safety and liberty in North Korea. Leave mine and others rights intact.