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Air Force says surveillance plane flew over Portland but was not involved in response to protests

A Dornier 328 aircraft is shown on a runway. The surveillance aircraft, used by secretive U.S. military units, flew missions over Oregon, creating concerns that the service may be collecting information about protests. The Air Force says that is not the case. (Sgt. Jasmin Taylor/U.S. Air Force)

An Air Force surveillance plane from a secretive unit flew missions from an airport serving Portland, Ore., this week amid unrest there, but officials said they began planning the operations months ago and did not collect information about protests.

The plane arrived at Portland-Hillsboro Airport on Sunday afternoon and flew five flights over the state between Tuesday morning and Thursday morning, according to online civilian-run flight trackers.

The plane was on an assignment for Big Safari, a secretive program that buys, tests and modifies equipment for U.S. Special Operations.

The flights have intensified a debate about the federal government’s response to protests in Portland sparked by the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis in May. Civil liberties advocates, critics of President Trump’s administration and others have spoken out against the use of militarized Border Patrol agents and Immigration and Customs Enforcement in a crackdown on protesters in Portland and other cities.

“Military surveillance flights over our cities raise serious constitutional questions, as they may chill Americans’ First Amendment right to protest,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D.-Ore.) said in a statement. "That’s why I’ve asked the Air Force to explain what’s going on, what information is being collected and who ordered these flights.”

Ann Stefanek, an Air Force spokeswoman, said in a statement Friday that the service conducted “previously planned test flights in the Northwest United States that required the environmental conditions typical of the region." The location, she said, was chosen several months ago due to the high likelihood of cloud cover desired in the testing.

“The Dornier 328 aircraft, assigned to Air Force Materiel Command’s 645th Aeronautical Engineering Group, was not gathering intelligence or conducting operations related to civil unrest in Portland, Ore.,” she said.

Doing so would have broken with norms that were put in place after the Defense Department collected intelligence in the 1960s and 1970s about people involved in the civil rights movement and Vietnam War protesters. Those efforts included intercepting radio communications, infiltrating organizations and turning information gathered over to law enforcement authorities, according to a Defense Department summary of the actions, which called such measures “inappropriate.”

Wyden responded on Friday that the Air Force “should have known better” than to carry out the flights while federal authorities were “beating and gassing protesters."

“Even if this was a test flight arranged months ago, the Air Force’s decision to continue as planned, rather than delaying the flight, raises serious questions about the judgement of the military leaders who approved the flight,” he said.

The Air Force flights over Oregon this week, reported Thursday by the Intercept, mostly occurred at hours when the protests were not active. On Tuesday morning, for example, the plane flew from 2:17 a.m. to 5:58 a.m., and from 6:37 a.m. to 9:51 a.m. It departed for Denver early Friday.

While the Air Force said it has not collected intelligence about the protests, other federal officials have. Department of Homeland Security aircraft — manned and unmanned — have been flown over protests this year for surveillance purposes.

Jon Swaine contributed to this report.