Air Force Investigation Finds National Guard Flights Over Protests Were Legal

The Inspector General of the Air Force led an investigation into the Air National Guard flown over protests in June, and found their activities were legal.

Air National Guard RC-26B aircraft were used to monitor activities during the civil unrest occurring in four different cities across the United States from Jun 1 to 4 to assist police. But the Secretary of Defense (SECDef) and the Secretary of the Air Force Def (SECAF) had concerns about these activities. In addition, 35 Members of Congress signed a letter indicating their concerns about the RC-26B aircraft flying over the protests, stating that “authorities do not permit surveillance of American citizens or the collection of ‘vast amounts of personal information.’”

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The investigation focused on three separate issues: 1) Whether or not personal information of U.S. persons was collected illegally when the aircraft flew over the protests in Minnesota, Arizona, California, and Washington, D.C.  2) The multitude of overlapping authorities that govern the use and employment of the National Guard Assets and personnel and proper circumstances authorized for support to civil authorities.  3) Collateral procedural issues that came to light which could be addressed by law or policy to improve the process for civil disturbance support and response options in the future.

A Senior Defense Official gave an overview of the investigation on August 21, confirming that “…on none of the flights, that’s seven flights, four cities, did any of the crews violate the rules of intel collection on U.S. persons. And they weren’t anywhere close to the left and right limits.”

The equipment on the aircraft is designed for geographic monitoring, not individual tracking. The monitoring was for crowd size, crowd flow, looking at the fires near the protests and determining what the safety impact might be. The sensors on the RC-26B can only collect infrared and electro-optical imagery. The equipment isn’t capable of identifying  the distinguishing personal features of individual people.

The investigation did show that policy regarding these types of flights needs to be reviewed. The policy hasn’t been reviewed for several years and is open for inaccurate interpretation when it comes to what constitutes an intel platform.

Through the investigation, it was found that there are some disconnects around what is designated as an intel platform.  When designated as an intel platform, it has governance all the way up to the Sec. Def who determines in what circumstances it can be used.

When the Guard Bureau looked at using this aircraft for the mission in June, they did not consider it as an intel platform.  Historically, this has been the case since the platform has been in existence.

There were a total of seven flights over four cities and the investigation reviewed every single one of them.  They interviewed all of the crews.

In the Senior Defense Official remarks to the media, they said, “So we interviewed a total of 31 people and looked at: what were you tasked to do in the first place, and was that appropriate? And then what did you actually do, and was that appropriate?”

The Senior Official went on to say,  “And it took us a little longer than I wanted to to get this done, but we couldn’t afford to get it wrong. So we left no stone unturned. And we went back to the airplanes that flew the mission. And luckily data is normally is preserved from the missions, so we collected the data to see it for our own — with our own eyes. We didn’t just ask people “what do you think you did?” or — we have to see it as I.G. investigators. “

The investigation showed there was no wrongdoing on the part of the crew or in following the instructions they were given to carry out.

There were several recommendations given so that the National Guard Bureau and INS can address the policy issues. The 70 page report details what is needed to tighten up the policies, to provide clarity and “provide conciseness in the policies that govern the use of such assets.”

There are stakeholders assigned in the report that will be addressing these policy issues in order to avoid problems in the future when it comes to providing support during times of civil unrest.

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