Sen. Ron Johnson sent a letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray on Tuesday requesting information about how the FBI uses surveillance aircraft during riots and protests and what it does with the footage.
The Wisconsin Republican cited reports of the FBI using these aircraft to watch the 2014 unrest in Ferguson, Mo., 2015 demonstrations in Baltimore, and the 2020 Black Lives Matter riots in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
The Kenosha footage is now being used as prosecutorial evidence in the criminal trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, raising questions about how the FBI preserves surveillance video and uses it.
“Given the FBI’s apparent use of surveillance aircraft during protests and unrest throughout the country, it is unclear how the FBI monitors those situations, how it preserves the footage from those aircraft, how it uses that footage, and whether the footage is captured at different quality levels,” Johnson wrote in his letter.
Johnson’s questions for Wray include how the FBI determines when and where to monitor potential unrest and how many aircraft to use, who exactly is responsible for monitoring the video, how the FBI shares its video with local law enforcement, and what the FBI does if its aircraft spot a crime happening. Johnson also inquired about whether the FBI records its footage at different levels of video quality and how it preserves the video it captures.
The letter specifically asks the FBI to disclose “[t]he number of surveillance aircraft the FBI used in Kenosha, Wisconsin on each day from August 23, 2020 – September 2, 2020,” spanning from the day Jacob Blake was shot through the deadly riots his shooting sparked.
After the prosecutor in the Rittenhouse case called on an FBI technician to testify about the surveillance video on Tuesday, Rittenhouse’s defense attorney suggested the FBI might be withholding additional aerial footage or may have destroyed it. Prosecutors are using the FBI’s low-quality video for a key part of their case, but the defense suspects the FBI could have more footage or better quality video that gives a fuller picture of the night’s events, leading up to and including the shootings.
Defense attorney Mark Richards said the FBI has so far refused attempts to access “the rest” of the footage, at one point reportedly telling the defense it doesn’t exist anymore.
“I can’t believe the FBI is doing surveillance of multiple homicides and gets rid of the video. That’s preposterous,” Richards said.
While general aerial surveillance in public places is legal, the Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that extended surveillance of a person over a large space is not.
Johnson gave Wray until 5 p.m. on Nov. 23 to provide the information.