An aircraft previously linked to the U.S. Marshals Service circled over Portland protests for nearly three hours on Saturday night. The federal agency declined to disclose if it belongs to them.
Flight tracker data shows the aircraft, which has the tail number N1789M, departed from Kelso, Wash., at 8:20 pm on Saturday, June 13. About 15 minutes later, the plane arrived over Portland airspace, where it began making counterclockwise circles above the quadrants of the city for three hours before heading north to Olympia, Wash., at about 11:30 pm.
At that same time, thousands of people gathered in downtown Portland and on the central eastside to protest the killing of George Floyd and other black Americans who died in police custody.
During its three-hour flyover, the aircraft, a Cessna Caravan, orbited steadily at 5,400 feet for the first hour. It then descended to 4,400 feet for the next two hours. The plane traveled at about 120 mph, and it made more than 30 circles above the city, flight tracker data shows.
The aircraft is registered to a company called Early Detection Alarm Systems. A 2017 BuzzFeed investigation alleged that Early Detection, which lists its address as a United Parcel Service store in Spring, Texas, is a front for the U.S. Marshals Service, and that planes registered to the company are in fact owned by the Marshals Service.
This document, obtained by BuzzFeed, shows a U.S. Marshals employee requesting a new registration card for an Early Detection Alarm Systems plane—also a Cessna, like the one that circled over Portland.
Reached by phone Monday by WW, Marshals Service spokesman Drew Wade declined to comment on the plane's tactics, or acknowledge whether the service owns aircraft N1789M.
"Why would we confirm the use of any law enforcement technique?" Wade said. "To reveal sensitive information goes against our ability to keep people safe."
In an email statement, Wade said the Marshals Service uses "various investigative techniques" to track and locate what the agency describes as "fugitives."
"These techniques are carried out consistent with federal law, and are subject to court approval," Wade said in the statement. "Any investigative techniques which the Marshals Service uses are deployed only in furtherance of ordinary law enforcement operations, such as the apprehension of wanted individuals, and not to conduct domestic surveillance, intelligence-gathering, or any type of bulk data collection."
The sighting of an aircraft previously linked to the Marshals Service is the first indication that a federal agency might be surveilling and potentially gathering data on protesters in Portland this year.
Devices attached to circling aircraft can act almost as cellphone towers to collect data from large groups of people, The Wall Street Journal previously reported this year.
If the aircraft was surveilling protesters, that wouldn't be a new tactic.
In cities nationwide, protesters have spotted drones that have been linked back to law enforcement agencies. In Portland, the Police Bureau has deployed a small plane at 3,400 feet every night except one since May 28, when the protests began, KGW previously reported. (It is unclear exactly what the bureau's plane has been doing. The bureau said in an email to WW that it does not collect cellphone data from protesters.)
The potential data collection and surveillance in Portland is troubling, says the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, which is currently challenging a Baltimore aerial surveillance program used to surveil protesters.
Jann Carson, the interim executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, says protest surveillance may violate state laws.
"Not only does this type of law enforcement surveillance encroach upon constitutional values, it is contrary to Oregon law which prohibits law enforcement from collecting or maintaining any information about the political views of any individual or group unless it directly relates to a criminal activity. Protest is not criminal," Carson told WW. "Information about the purpose of the flights over Portland and the data being collected should be made public immediately. If the agency conducting the flights will not make information public, then any state or city agency receiving information from these flights has a duty to inform the public. "
The Portland Police Bureau did not respond to a request for comment whether it is working in tandem with the U.S. Marshals Service to monitor protests.