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The DOJ Is Letting the Drug Enforcement Administration Surveil Protesters

As the Trump administration responds to the nationwide protests over George Floyd’s killing by pushing the use of military force, the Department of Justice, too, is ramping up its oversight over protesters. BuzzFeed News reports that the Justice Department officially issued approval Sunday for the Drug Enforcement Administration to expand its activities for the next 14 days, granting them the ability to “enforce any federal crime committed as a result of protests over the death of George Floyd.” For 14 days, DEA officials may now go beyond drug-related crimes to perform whatever “law enforcement duties” that U.S. Attorney General William Barr “may deem appropriate” against protesters or those committing crimes in conjunction with the protests—including the use of surveillance.

According to a memorandum obtained by BuzzFeed, DEA special agents and task force officers now temporarily have the ability to “conduct covert surveillance and protect against threats to public safety,” as well as share intelligence with government officials; “intervene as Federal law enforcement officials” to “protect” protesters and bystanders; and “engage in investigative and enforcement activity.” The memorandum, which was written by DEA Acting Administrator (and noted Barr ally) Timothy Shea, significantly expands the typical scope of the DEA’s work, which is traditionally limited by law to focus solely on drug-related crimes. Because of this, the memo acknowledges that the agency previously had a “limited” ability to assist in the DOJ’s protest-related efforts, as “the federal crimes being committed in the wake of Mr. Floyd’s death are largely not drug-related.”

Shea notes in the memo that the attorney general is legally allowed to grant the DEA the ability to “perform other law enforcement duties as he may deem appropriate,” and the memorandum suggests the widespread crime springing from the protests makes it necessary for the agency to start pitching in to the DOJ’s efforts. Floyd’s death “has spawned widespread protests across the nation, which, in some instances, have included violence and looting,” Shea writes. “Police agencies in certain areas of the country have struggled to maintain and/or restore order.” But three DEA sources told BuzzFeed they were “troubled” by the memo and the DOJ’s apparent efforts to “crack down” on the protesters and their First Amendment rights. “Drug enforcement agents should not be conducting covert surveillance of protests and First Amendment protected speech,” Hugh Handeyside, a senior attorney for the ACLU, told BuzzFeed. “That kind of monitoring and information sharing may well constitute unwarranted investigation of people exercising their constitutional rights to seek justice. The executive branch continues to run headlong in the wrong direction.”

This isn’t the first time in recent years that the federal government has surveilled protesters, BuzzFeed notes. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security monitored social media for “intelligence” on those protesting the 2015 death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore and hatched a plan to “plug” federal agents into protests in Ferguson, Missouri, while the FBI actively surveilled participants in the Occupy Wall Street movement. (It is unclear if these agencies or any other federal law enforcement agencies have been granted surveillance powers for the Floyd protests, BuzzFeed reports.) As the protests over Floyd’s killing have exploded across the country, activists have been warning protesters to turn off their location tracking on their phones and take other precautions, fearing that law enforcement will use this data to track protesters. “The device in your pocket is definitely going to give off information that could be used to identify you,” Harlo Holmes, director of newsroom security at the Freedom of the Press Foundation, told Wired. The New York Times reported in December that in the U.S. and other nations, “any protester who brings a phone to a public demonstration is tracked and that person’s presence at the event is duly recorded in commercial datasets.” These datasets, the Times notes, may then be sold to third parties, including political parties, and Times reporters Charlie Warzel and Stuart A. Thompson were able to use the data to identify individual protesters based on their travel patterns. “Personally, I’m happy to protest Trump and have people knowing about it,” Eric Hensal, who was included in a dataset from a 2016 protest at the Trump Hotel in Washington D.C., told the Times. “But there’s so much somebody, say, a state actor could determine just by a travel pattern. It’s honestly frightening.”

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