Wyden seeks inquiry into government surveillance of Black Lives Matter protesters


Oregon’s U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden joined with two other Democratic lawmakers Thursday to urge an independent federal agency investigate allegations that government agencies have been conducting surveillance of recent Black Lives Matter protests.

The letter by Wyden, U.S. Reps. Anna G. Eshoo, D-Calif., and Bobby L. Rush, D-Ill., was sent to the U.S. Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. The board was created in 2007 to “ensure that the federal government’s efforts to prevent terrorism are balanced with the need to protect privacy and civil liberties,” according to the mission on its website.

They urged the board conduct an inquiry looking into, among other things: the use of a single-engine Cessna Caravan, owned and operated by the U.S. Marshals Service, that was flying over Portland on June 13 with a camera attached taking still pictures of the protest crowd; alleged intelligence reports compiled on journalists covering protests in Portland and the Federal Protective Services’ examination of cell phones seized from protesters arrested.

In response to Congressional questions, a federal official from the Marshals Service said the plane that flew above Portland in June only took photos but the images did not contain “personally identifiable information of any kind,” and didn’t include any recorded video or cell site simulators, according to the letter.

The House Intelligence Committee found that the Federal Protective Service has seized cell phones from protesters, although the U.S. Department of Homeland Security appears to have denied the federal agency’s request to extract data from the phones, the letter said.

The federal oversight board “should investigate the legal authority (Federal Protective Service) used to confiscate protester cell phones with the intent of extracting data,” the legislators wrote.

The Washington Post reported at the end of July that the Department of Homeland Security had disseminated intelligence reports to federal law enforcement, summarizing tweets written by a New York Times reporter and the editor in chief of the blog Lawfare, noting they had published leaked, unclassified documents about federal operations in Portland. The Homeland Security Department has since ceased the practice, the lawmakers noted in the letter.

The oversight board should hold public hearings to determine whether and to what extent federal agencies have collected or processed personal information of protesters, what legal basis they have for any surveillance and whether those procedures are being followed.

“Government surveillance has a chilling effect on the constitutionally protected act of peacefully protesting,” the letter said. “Because several federal agencies have gathered information about protesters, we ask that (the oversight board) investigate whether these activities infringe on fundamental rights or violate laws.”

— Maxine Bernstein

Email at mbernstein@oregonian.com; 503-221-8212

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