The United States Marshals Service confirmed Wednesday that it flew a small aircraft over Portland protests for 1.5 hours on the evening of June 13, and that it photographed crowds surrounding the Multnomah County Justice Center and Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse.
Back in June, WW reported first that a plane linked previously to the U.S. Marshals Service circled over Portland protests. At the time, the agency declined to disclose if the aircraft belonged to it or to say what type of surveillance was being conducted.
That prompted members of Oregon's congressional delegation to demand answers. They issued a letter June 24 seeking whether the Marshals Service owned the aircraft, who designated the aircraft's flight and what types of surveillance were being conducted. The delegates gave the Marshals Service a July 17 deadline, and the agency responded in an Aug. 19 letter.
"On June 13, 2020, USMS management approved deployment of an air asset to assist the ongoing law enforcement challenges on the ground. The aircraft, a single engine Cessna Caravan, is owned and operated by the USMS," the agency wrote in its Aug. 19 letter, signed by spokesman William Delaney. "The aircraft is equipped with an imaging system (aviation electro-optical and infrared camera) that gave better situational awareness to the small number of deputies who were defending the federal courthouse during a time of great uncertainty."
Delaney said the plane was not equipped with cell site simulators or similar surveillance systems, which can intervene with the signals of cellphones in the aircraft's scope.
The plane was equipped with a camera, which captured still images of crowds "to assist a legitimate law enforcement function."
However, Delaney wrote, the individuals photographed are not identifiable and instead appear as "indistinct heat signatures with no physical characteristics, biographic identifiers, or personally identifiable information of any kind." The Marshals Service says it did not share the images with any other agencies.
"What the images show is the influx of crowds approaching the Multnomah County Justice Center and Hatfield U.S. Courthouse within the final hours of June 13 and into the early morning hours of June 14," Delaney wrote. He said the imaging was used to provide "better situational awareness" for the deputies surrounding the courthouse on the ground.
The agency says Marshals Service management approved the flight above the Portland protests, and that "violent rioters" who attempted to damage property prompted them to surveil the protests.
"Since the death of George Floyd starting on May 29 and nightly thereafter, there have been peaceful protests every day and evening around the Mark Hatfield U.S. Courthouse in Portland," the Marshals Service wrote. "Unfortunately, every evening violent rioters unaffiliated with peaceful protesters have attacked the courthouse and tried to harm the deputy U.S. marshals tasked with protecting it."
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and one of Oregon's congressional leaders who demanded answers from the Marshals Service, called the action chilling.
"This confirmation by federal law enforcement that it flew a surveillance plane over downtown Portland taking photos indiscriminately cannot help but cast a chill over the vast majority of protesters who are peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights," Wyden told WW. "It remains unclear why such an action is taken but for nefarious purposes."
Earlier this month, WW reported that planes owned by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security also circled for hours above Portland protests on at least three separate occasions. It remains unclear what type of surveillance, if any, those planes were conducting.
"What is clear is that Donald Trump's attacks on peaceful protesters in Portland and elsewhere, as well as his direction to federal agencies to flagrantly disregard constitutionally protected speech, require constant vigilance," Wyden said. "I will keep exercising both that vigilance and my own voice on behalf of Oregonians to speak out against those attacks by this administration."