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Air Force investigating use of military aircraft to monitor protests

The Air Force announced on Thursday that its inspector general has launched an investigation into whether military surveillance planes were used to improperly monitor anti-racism and anti-police brutality protests in Minneapolis and Washington earlier this month.

Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, the chief Air Force spokesman, told The New York Times the probe is regarding "the use of Air National Guard RC-26 aircraft to support civil authorities during recent protest activity in U.S. cities." The investigation appears to have been sparked by lawmakers who voiced their concerns that the use of these planes may have violated the civil liberties of protesters, the Times reports.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) is an RC-26 pilot with the Wisconsin Air National Guard, and he told the Times he flew two night missions over Minneapolis this month, providing real time video to authorities. He said Gov. Tim Walz (D-Minn.) requested the aircraft in order to spot any possible trouble happening below. The camera on the plane is so strong that while flying between 4,000 and 20,000 feet, it is able to capture a general image of a person, but cannot use facial recognition or read license plates, Kinzinger said.

The Times also saw a message sent on June 2 by National Guard officials telling their commanders that the West Virginia Air National Guard deployed an RC-26B aircraft with electronic surveillance equipment to observe protesters in Washington. A military official familiar with the matter told the Times video recorded from the aircraft was sent to senior National Guard leaders in real time, and they were able to watch the footage on their cell phones.

Last week, Joseph Kernan, the under secretary of defense for intelligence and security, sent a letter to the House Intelligence Committee saying that he did not receive any orders from the Trump administration to spy on protesters during the demonstrations.