In a conspicuous show of force, armed Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers were recently seen in Portland carrying out surveillance and arrests. Agency director Mark Morgan has defended the deployment as measured and restrained. “I will not send any resource out anywhere to confront American citizens,” he told Time. But CBP’s support to local law enforcement has extended far beyond its controversial Portland deployment, and includes not just thousands of personnel but also drones and dozens of other aircraft, according to a CBP document obtained exclusively by The Nation.
The document, a draft of the agency’s answers to questions posed to them by Senator Kamala Harris on June 5, 2020, details the assets CBP deployed in response to requests for assistance from local law enforcement agencies across the country. So many local law enforcement agencies requested support that, according to the document, CBP was not aware of any state or local entities that explicitly declined assistance. The assistance includes a broad array of services like aerial surveillance, crowd control, unmarked vehicles, and plainclothes surveillance. Several requests involve specialized tactical units like CBP’s amphibious Riverine Force.
An index lists requests from various metropolitan police departments, including the NYPD, Chicago PD, Miami PD, Philadelphia PD, San Diego PD, and DC’s Metropolitan PD. Even federal agencies requested assistance, including several FBI field offices and the Drug Enforcement Agency. CBP aerial assets have been deployed to a variety of states including Illinois, New York, Ohio, Texas, Michigan, California, Florida, and Minnesota.
When Minneapolis erupted in protest in response to the police killing of George Floyd, CBP deployed a predator drone over the airspace. Several members of Congress sent CBP a letter demanding that the agency “cease any and all surveilling of Americans engaged in peaceful protests,” while CBP response to the protests also prompted Senator Harris to send the agency her list of questions. Director Morgan testified to the US Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on June 25, on the subject of “CBP Oversight.”
The document was provided to The Nation by a CBP official on condition of anonymity to avoid professional reprisal. It is unclear when CBP intends to provide the information to Senator Harris.
According to the document, between May 20 and June 10, these requests resulted in 326.4 hours of aviation assets deployments as well as 2,174 personnel. Aviation support—CBP’s Air and Marine Operations possesses hundreds of aircraft—totaled 326.4 flight hours and included 38 rotor-wing, eight fixed -wing, and two unmanned aircraft systems. Included in the deployment was one Bearcat, two ATVs, three “vessels,” 50 marked vehicles, and 52 unmarked vehicles. Federal law enforcement’s reported use of unmarked vehicles in Portland led to uproar after video surfaced on social media showing what appeared to be a demonstrator arrested by an unidentified federal agent who ushered him into an unmarked vehicle. Among these federal agents were BORTAC agents—CBP’s elite tactical unit.
Although the document states, “The policies require the use of identifiable agency uniforms with badging and name tapes on the outermost garment (e.g. jacket, body armor),” CBP has offered no explanation about its use of agents who did not carry such identification.
The document is often vague about the deployments, especially those involving aircraft, saying only that “the nature of these deployments were based on the requests.” But answers to questions about surveillance capabilities provide some clues about the measures taken.
“CBP’s aircrafts can be equipped with cameras, radar and/or other technologies to support CBP components in patrolling the border, conducting surveillance as part of a law enforcement investigation or tactical operations, and respond to other significant incidents as directed,” the document states.
Footage from AMO [CBP Air and Marine Operations] aircraft systems is not shared with other law enforcement agencies, unless needed for an investigation or in connection with law enforcement activity. Requests for footage must be processed, reviewed and approved before dissemination by the CBP Office of Intelligence’s Production, Exploitation and Dissemination Cell.
The document also shows that CBP is conducting intelligence gathering operations in relation to the protests, though limited to “basic open source/social media research techniques.”
In several cases, CBP appears hesitant to answer Senator Harris’s questions. Responding to whether they discussed these deployments with anyone at the White House and, if so, with which individuals specifically, the document confirms the White House’s involvement but declines to specify: “CBP defers to DHS [CBP’s parent agency] to address this question as it coordinated component efforts with the White House.”
In another instance, when asked to confirm that CBP will not conduct immigration enforcement activities at protests and demonstrations, CBP refuses to do so, stating: “Our efforts are directed at the preservation of life and safety. Beyond that, CBP has not made any additional comments/statements to this effort. Thus, CBP has no additional information to provide with respect to this question and the sub-questions.”
“As the active commissioner I will authorize any assets that we have to carry out their mission to protect and safeguard the federal buildings, as well as protect and safeguard the law enforcement personnel that are there,” CBP director Morgan told Time. The document, however, counts “no CBP facilities disrupted or damaged at this time,” and lists only a single CBP employee as having been injured.