That breach — combined with the throngs of protesters that converged outside the White House the night of May 29 — prompted agents to rush President Trump to a reinforced bunker and spurred a deeper concern about the White House’s vulnerability.
In a letter a week later, the Secret Service asked U.S. Customs and Border Protection to provide aircraft that could be used in a rapid-response helicopter operation, the records show.
Customs and Border Protection ultimately provided the agency with live information from a surveillance plane, but the Secret Service determined that the helicopter was not necessary, according to administration officials familiar with the plans, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions.
Washington is the latest example of cities where CBP deployed surveillance aircraft in the skies in recent months to monitor demonstrations. In Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, a Predator drone was dispatched May 29. The agency’s role has drawn sharp criticism from Democrats and others who say such tactics infringe on privacy and free-speech rights.
In a June 5 letter, a top Secret Service official asked CBP for use of a Black Hawk helicopter equipped with special “fast ropes.” The agency proposed the aircraft could be used to rapidly drop six tactical agents for emergency missions, to help officers under threat and to descend on crowds from overhead, according to government records.
The Secret Service also asked CBP to help the agency gather information on protesters by flying a surveillance plane equipped with infrared imaging over the city starting that weekend.
The agency asked CBP to share live video feeds from the plane so the Secret Service could track protesters’ movements near the White House and around the city.
“Due to the significant and unprecedented events occurring in the National Capital Region, the U.S. Secret Service is requesting the support from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Operations,” Kimberly Cheatle, assistant director for the Secret Service’s Office of Protective Operations, wrote to CBP acting commissioner Mark Morgan in the June 5 letter. “CBP’s participation in the operational security plan is vital.”
The letter was obtained through a public records request filed by American Oversight, a government watchdog group.
The two separate aircraft operations were aimed at helping the Secret Service secure the White House, but also at thwarting other security risks in the city caused by the protests, according to multiple officials familiar with the planning.
Secret Service spokeswoman Catherine Milhoan declined to comment, citing the need to shield details about the agency’s security tactics and methods.
“In support of its protective mission, the U.S. Secret Service routinely requests interagency support from federal partners through formal ‘request for assistance’ letters,” Milhoan said in a statement. “Due to the significant and unprecedented events occurring and anticipated in the National Capital Region, the agency followed standard protocol to ensure it had the resources and capabilities that might be required to maintain a safe and secure environment for the people and places it protects and the general public.”
In a statement, CBP said its Air and Marine Operations division works regularly with the Secret Service and other federal agencies, as well as state and local law enforcement departments. The agency declined to answer questions about the Secret Service’s June 5 request, saying that “it would not be appropriate to share specific details of every movement our personnel or assets make.”
“Collaborating with our law enforcement partners, AMO aircrews are capable of providing real-time, live video feeds to ground-based agents giving them situational awareness, maximizing public safety, and minimizing the threat to personnel and assets during national security and public safety events and to transport personnel and supplies as needed,” CBP said in a statement, adding that the agency does not lend out its aircraft or crew.
CBP’s Air and Marine Operations division typically monitors U.S. borders and coastlines,
sending boats, helicopters, high-altitude drones and other aircraft to detect illegal entries and drug traffickers. On a more limited basis, the AMO division has turned its surveillance tools inward to monitor sporting events and other large gatherings that are potential targets for terrorist attacks.
The division is tasked with helping the Secret Service secure the skies over federally designated national security events where massive crowds gather, including Super Bowl games and presidential inaugurations. CBP provided its “eye in the sky” monitoring for Trump’s inauguration in 2017, as well as the Super Bowls in Minneapolis in 2018 and in Atlanta in 2019.
But this was the first time the Secret Service had asked the Air and Marine Operations division to provide such a helicopter operation to protect the White House and monitor impromptu demonstrations, according to one former and two current federal security officials.
House Democrats have pressed acting Homeland Security secretary Chad Wolf for more information about CBP’s surveillance role during the protests.
“This Administration has undermined the First Amendment freedoms of Americans of all races who are rightfully protesting George Floyd’s killing,” Democratic lawmakers on the House Oversight Committee wrote to Wolf in a June 5 letter. “The deployment of drones and officers to surveil protests is a gross abuse of authority and is particularly chilling when used against Americans who are protesting law enforcement brutality.”
CBP officials have said their aircraft do not possess or use facial recognition technology, and their cameras do not provide enough resolution to identify a person or read a license plate number. The cameras are used instead to gather rough details, such as whether a person is wearing a backpack or may be carrying a weapon, CBP officials say.
The Secret Service’s request for air support came as officials braced for tens of thousands of protesters to converge again in Washington in early June to demonstrate against police violence and systemic racism.
The agency has faced criticism in the past from Congress for its lack of a comprehensive plan to secure the White House if multiple people simultaneously sought to breach the grounds. In 2014, an injured Iraq War combat veteran was able to jump over the White House fence, get past multiple officers and run inside the White House.
On May 29, Secret Service officers and senior leaders were alarmed when large crowds pushed toward the White House complex, with many jumping or knocking over the temporary barricades and at least one protester climbing over the fence line near the Treasury building.
That breach — combined with the large and aggressive crowds — led the Secret Service to raise the threat level at the complex to “Red,” its highest level, and to rush Trump to a reinforced bunker in the White House basement for his safety.
The unexpected size of the crowd and aggressiveness of protesters on the White House perimeter led to some hand-wringing inside the Secret Service about how to harden the complex if multiple protesters rushed the complex’s gates at the same time, according to two law enforcement sources briefed on the discussions and comments of some Secret Service staff members posted on an internal employee forum obtained by The Post.
Some officers complained in the forum that the White House had been extremely vulnerable the night of May 29 and that the Secret Service had to consider more-combative measures to keep protesters at bay,
The Secret Service called in hundreds of agents and placed others on emergency standby to help supplement the officers guarding the White House fence that weekend — an unusual step more typically taken for an inauguration or presidential funeral.
The weekend came to a violent and dramatic end on the night of June 1 with an unprecedented use of force led by U.S. Park Police. The federal officers, with the help of the Secret Service and Virginia police officers, fired chemical gas and rubber munitions at a crowd of peaceful protesters to drive them out of the area around Lafayette Square, clearing the path for Trump to walk across the park for a photo op.
As the Secret Service began planning for the following weekend, officials reached out to CBP, the newly obtained records show.
The Black Hawk helicopter with fast ropes that the agency requested is known for its use by Special Operations teams dropping into a dangerous situation for a covert mission or to extract a hostage or victim. The surveillance plane, often called the CBP’s “eye in the sky,” is frequently used to interdict drug traffickers and human smugglers at the border.
The footage gathered by surveillance aircraft is made available to police agencies and others through a system CBP calls “BigPipe” — essentially a single interface fed by a network of cameras that is streamed over the Internet.
In the past, the agency has not shied away from describing the system’s surveillance capabilities in superlative terms.
According to CBP, “the system allows stakeholders to view real-time mission data and to make critical decisions during the detection, tracking and interdiction phases of operations.”
American Oversight, which obtained the letter, said it indicates that the Trump administration is using federal agents and militarized tactics to violate people’s right to protest — and possibly violate their privacy.
“This is further evidence that the Trump administration sees First Amendment activities as a siege and our fellow citizens as combatants,” said Austin Evers, American Oversight’s executive director.
Shane Harris, Alice Crites and Julie Tate contributed to this report.