Last week, we told you about the Department of Homeland Security’s “fusion center” in Baltimore and its ability to spy on Baltimore during the city’s unrest. But where would it get its info? Thanks to a few enterprising Twitter users, we have one possible answer: nondescript spy planes circling the city.
The Washington Post reports that local police-scanning buff Benjamin Shayne and a Twitter acquaintance, former ACLU employee Pete Cimbolic, investigated public records of a plane circling over Shayne’s neighborhood Saturday night and learned that the Cessna belonged to a shadowy North Virginia contractor that had been flying over the riot epicenter for days:
What Shayne’s online rumination helped unveil was a previously secret, multi-day campaign of overhead surveillance by city and federal authorities during a period of historic political protest and unrest.
Discovery of the flights — which involved at least two airplanes and the assistance of the FBI — has prompted the American Civil Liberties Union to demand answers about the legal authority for the operations and the reach of the technology used. Planes armed with the latest surveillance systems can monitor larger areas than police helicopters and stay overhead longer, raising novel civil liberties issues that have so far gotten little scrutiny from courts.
Civil libertarians have particular concern about surveillance technology that can quietly gather images across dozens of city blocks — in some cases even square miles at a time — inevitably capturing the movements of people under no suspicion of criminal activity into a government dragnet. The ACLU plans to file information requests with federal agencies on Wednesday, officials said.
The Post obtained detailed reports of the two planes’ activities, including an eerie trace of their flight paths—”a continuous, circling path that appeared to have its center directly above the intersection of Pennsylvania and North avenues, where the most violent unrest was centered after Gray’s funeral on April 27”:
The FBI and Baltimore police declined comment, but an unnamed official told the Post that “the flights were aerial support that Baltimore police officials requested from the FBI.”
Exactly what were the aircraft looking for, and who in Baltimore and Annapolis knew what they up to? According to Maryland’s emergency operations plan, adopted last March, all intelligence-gathering efforts are run through a “Joint Operations Center” maintained by personnel from the Maryland Military Department, which is overseen by the state’s National Guard adjutant general. That would suggest the flights were run with tacit sanction from the adjutant general, Major Gen. Linda Singh, and Gov. Larry Hogan.
Col. Charles S. Kohler, a spokesman for the Maryland Army National Guard, told Gawker in an email that the military had no knowledge of any spy overflights during its deployment in Baltimore. “We did fly two missions one with a UH60 Blackhawk for the Governor to do a damage assessment and the other was with the Adjutant General in [an] LUH Lakota,” he said.