Exclusive: Military Fears Being Sucked Into Domestic Spying as Trump Orders Troops to Mexico Border

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a briefing on the coronavirus pandemic in the press briefing room of the White House on March 27, 2020 in Washington, DC. Drew Angerer/Getty

As the U.S. armed forces struggles to keep up with demands for assistance in coronavirus response while also dealing with its own outbreak, President Donald Trump has ordered a significant increase in counter-narcotics and border control operations—an increase that will strain already limited resources but also push the military into a controversial new mission of spying on American soil.

"Today the United States is launching enhanced counter-narcotics operations in the Western Hemisphere," President Trump announced yesterday. The military, the president said, "will increase surveillance, seizures of drug shipments, and provide additional support for eradication efforts that are going on right now at a record pace."

"These additional forces will nearly double our capacity to conduct counter-narcotics operations in the region," Defense Secretary Mark Esper said.

The president's announcement comes when the White House has also ordered additional military troops on the Mexican border, a move that military sources and observers say will also push the armed forces to engage in more domestic intelligence collection, an activity that is highly controversial and tightly controlled.

This weekend, Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois said that he wished President Trump would call up more National Guardsmen to respond to coronavirus. The Guard, Kinzinger told Fox News, wants to "push out" additional assets.

Kinzinger isn't just any armchair general. He is also a Lt. Colonel and pilot in the Air National Guard. His job, when called to duty, is to fly the RC-26 Metroliner pilot, a specially converted business jet unique to the Guard and outfitted for reconnaissance. With its real-time video capability similar to that used on large drones and with an additional array of electronic cameras, the RC-26 is regularly employed in support of the war on drugs, and in responding to natural disasters, having been used to photograph wildfires, floods, and hurricanes.

Kitzinger says that the RC-26 could be used to provide intelligence on the pandemic. On Monday and Tuesday, National Guard and Pentagon sources vigorously pushed back against Kinzinger's claims, saying that more intelligence collection was the last thing on their minds in coronavirus response. And yet on Wednesday, with the dual announcements of a doubling of counter-narcotics missions and the deployment of additional troops to the southern border, that mission, military sources say, will likely result in Kinzinger's planes collecting intelligence inside the country.

Gen. Terrance O'Shaughnessy, the commander of U.S. Northern Command confirmed Wednesday that additional troops were being sent to the U.S.-Mexico border to assist apprehending illegal crossers. "As we look at trying to seal off the external potential for COVID exposure to our U.S. citizens, there's actually an increased demand signal ... for securing the southern order," O'Shaughnessy said.

The Trump White House gave the go-ahead Monday for the Department of Homeland Security to specifically request additional support for its southern border mission, Pentagon sources say.

Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson, commander of Army North, also said Wednesday that 540 troops were requested. There are already about 5,000 U.S. troops serving at the U.S.-Mexico border.

"The way things work," says a senior retired NORTHCOM commander, "if the White House approves it and civil authorities request it, the military has to provide support. If they asked for 100 band members to play Stars and Stripes on the White House lawn, we'd similarly salute and carry out the orders."

The senior officer, requesting anonymity because he is not authorized to speak for the command, says that though he doesn't know whether additional people are trying to sneak into America, he still questions sending troops to the border and putting them in harm's way when there are important medical and logistical missions to fulfill at home. He calls the Defense leadership "weak" in not pushing back against President Trump's border and counter-narcotics priorities.

The Mexico deployments will levy new requirements on Kinzinger's RC-26s or military drones to collect intelligence, the senior officer says, particularly given that the mission is now being repurposed to protect Americans from coronavirus.

Military intelligence domestic collection, even in support of natural disasters, is so controversial that the National Guard doesn't even call it "intelligence," using the term "Incident Awareness and Assessment" (IAA) instead. The National Guard IAA manual written when the term was adopted says, "The change in title is necessary to make it clear that DOD does not collect Intelligence on US persons."

IAA, the document says, "leverages traditional DOD and other governmental Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities in support of domestic operations while assuring strict adherence to all applicable legal frameworks."

This is the world of black helicopters and so-called "chemtrails." Conspiracy theorists posit secret military units flying over America, and in the latter case, they peddle a theory that long-lasting condensation trails left by airliners are actually chemical or biological agents sprayed for weather modification or even psychological population control. Black helicopters, conspiracy theorists say, reveal that the United Nations is taking over the country or that special operations forces are secretly operating on American soil.

"The irony is that we've become ever more controlled and capable in response to public concerns. We've become so good at providing situational awareness for response forces that there isn't a natural disaster in which Air Guard collectors aren't called out," says a retired NORTHCOM commander who wrote the original rules for domestic support. Still, he says, collection inside the United States is highly controversial and governed by strict rules, and he hopes those rules will be scrupulously followed at the southern border.

Teresa Fitzpatrick, Associate Director of Air National Guard Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance Operations, tells Newsweek, "While the Air National Guard is actively involved across the nation in the fight against COVID-19, as of this time, no Air National Guard RC-26s or MQ-9 have been flown in the COVID-19 response effort." The MQ-9 refers to the Reaper drone, the successor to the famed Predator and a high flying reconnaissance asset flown by the Guard.

Fitzpatrick's claim is verified by @CivMilAir on Twitter, a well respected aircraft spotter site, which also says that while there have been routine drone flights over the Canadian and Mexican borders during the coronavirus virus crisis, those drones were flown by Customs and Border Protection of the Department of Homeland Security. The site says that there have been no RC-26 flights over American skies that suggest other kinds of intelligence collection.

In the first week of March, the National Guard did conduct an exercise called Patriot South in which it practiced domestic disaster-response collection. In that exercise, Guard members created Incident Awareness and Assessment products during a simulated hurricane disaster scenario. RC-26 aircraft and small Army RQ-11 Raven drones collected imagery that showed road closures, flooding and other damage, transmitting their material back to emergency operation centers, where it was annotated and distributed to first responders.

A similar domestic intelligence collection exercise, Patriot North, was held last July, this time around a flooding and tornado scenario more characteristic of the Midwest. In that exercise, a North Dakota-based Reaper drone, National Guard helicopters and Civil Air Patrol Cessna planes outfitted with cameras collected imagery while the 194th Intelligence Squadron of Air National Guard, based out Camp Murray in Tacoma, Washington, put their skills to work analyzing and annotating the photos, making unclassified products that could also be widely distributed, including to Red Cross volunteers.

Coronavirus spying intelligence trump military mexico border
Domestic spying? U.S. Army Spc. Aaron Johnson, a Soldier assigned to Alpha Company, 1st Squadron, 118th Infantry Regiment, South Carolina Army National Guard, launches an RQ-11 Raven at a remote site during PATRIOT South 2020 at the Gulfport Combat Readiness Training Center in Gulfport, Miss., Mar. 4, 2020 U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. L. Roland Sturm

"That's the fundamental difference between 'intelligence' and IAA," says the retired NORTHCOM commander. "If what we produce is classified it's not much use to police or fire fighters. We've learned that the hard way."

National Guard regulations state, "All IAA capabilities are legally employed in accordance with Federal policies on Intelligence Oversight and Handling of U.S. person information." Like any military regulation dealing with domestic operations, there are exceptions. Criminal or terrorist information "incidentally collected" by National Guard components must be handed to responsible law enforcement channels. And any intelligence collection in support of "civil disturbance operations" must be approved by the Secretary of Defense.

But the biggest exception is "foreign intelligence" collection, which is allowed as a routine part of domestic operations. "At a time when Americans face a profound public health and national security threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is imperative that the men and women of law enforcement have the support they need to prevent public health threats from entering the country through our borders," a Homeland Security official told Fox News late Tuesday.

The senior NORTHCOM commander and Air Force officers involved in allocating resources agree that more aircraft, helicopters and drones will likely take to the skies in support of the new border mission.

The RC-26 reconnaissance plane is flown by eleven Air National Guard units, four of them located in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Flying five hours at a time, the RC-26 can cover large areas, streaming video to ground controllers. The Reaper drone is supported from 13 Air National Guard units inside the United States,with three of them—in Syracuse, New York; Holloman AFB, New Mexico; and March Air Reserve Base, in Moreno Valley, California—flying the drones. At 40,000 feet, above the commercial airline highway, Reapers have 18 hours of flight endurance. The drones have day and low light TV cameras and infrared sensors that are accurate enough to detect individuals on the ground.