While the Trump administration responds to protests across the country over George Floyd's death, putting pressure on the use of military force, the Justice Department is also stepping up its oversight over protesters. BuzzFeed News reports that the Department of Justice officially issued approval on Sunday for the Drug Enforcement Administration to expand its activities for the next 14 days, granting them the ability to "impose any federal crime committed as a result of protests over the death of George Floyd". For 14 days, DEA officials can now move beyond drug-related crimes to perform any “law enforcement duties” that US Attorney General William Barr “deems appropriate” against protesters or those who commit crimes in with protests – including the use of surveillance.
According to a memo obtained by BuzzFeed, DEA special agents and task force officers now temporarily have the ability to "conduct secret surveillance and protect against threats to public security", in addition to sharing information with government officials; “Intervene as agents of federal law” to “protect” protesters and spectators; and "engaging in research and enforcement activities". The memo, written by Interim DEA Administrator (and noted Barrly) Timothy Shea, significantly expands the typical scope of the DEA's work, which is traditionally limited by law to focus only on drug-related crimes. For this reason, the memo acknowledges that the agency previously had a "limited" ability to assist in the Justice Department's protest-related efforts, since "the federal crimes committed following Floyd's death are not largely drug-related."
Shea notes in the memo that the attorney general is legally authorized to grant the DEA the ability to "perform other law enforcement tasks he deems appropriate", and the memo suggests that the widespread crime resulting from the protests makes it necessary for the agency to begin dedicate themselves to DOJ efforts. Floyd's death "sparked widespread protests across the country, which in some cases included violence and looting," writes Shea. "Police agencies in certain areas of the country have been struggling to maintain and / or restore order." But three DEA sources told BuzzFeed that they were "disturbed" by the memo and the DOJ's apparent efforts to "crack down" on protesters and their First Amendment rights. "Drug enforcement agents should not conduct covert surveillance of protests and protected First Amendment speech," ACLU senior lawyer Hugh Handeyside told BuzzFeed. “This type of monitoring and information sharing can constitute an unjustified investigation of people who exercise their constitutional rights to seek justice. The executive branch continues to move in the wrong direction. "
This is not the first time in recent years that the federal government has watched protesters, notes BuzzFeed. US Department of Homeland Security monitored social media for “intelligence” about those protesting the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore in 2015 and shocked a plan “Connecting” federal agents to protests in Ferguson, Missouri, while the FBI actively guarded participants in the Occupy Wall Street movement. (It is not clear whether these agencies or any other federal law enforcement agencies have been given surveillance powers for Floyd's protests, reports BuzzFeed.) As protests over Floyd's assassination exploded across the country, activists were Attention protesters to disable location tracking on their phones and take away other precautions, fearing that law enforcement will use this data to track protesters. "The device in your pocket will definitely provide information that can be used to identify you," said Harlo Holmes, director of security for the newsroom at the Freedom of the Press Foundation. Wired. The New York Times reported in December, in the United States and other countries, "any protester who takes a phone to a public demonstration is tracked and that person's presence at the event is duly recorded in commercial data sets." These data sets, the Times notes, can be sold to third parties, including political parties, and reporters from Charlie, Charlie Warzel and Stuart A. Thompson, were able to use the data to identify individual protesters based on their travel patterns. . "Personally, I am happy to protest against Trump and have people know about it," said Eric Hensal, who was included in a 2016 protest data set at the Trump Hotel in Washington DC. "But there is a lot, say, that a state actor could only determine by a travel pattern. It's honestly scary."