While anonymous federal agents have thrown protesters into unmarked vans and fired tear gas at Portland’s mayor in recent days, an Air Force surveillance plane designed to carry state-of-the-art sensors typically reserved for war zones has circled the Oregon city’s outskirts from above.
The plane, a DO-328 “Cougar,” was spotted via the open source flight tracking website ADS-B Exchange, allowing the public to monitor its course. The Intercept reviewed this flight data, confirming tight, circular flights consistent with surveillance operations in and around Portland.
The aircraft is a twin-engine plane built in a modular fashion that allows it to be outfitted with long-range surveillance equipment suitable for supporting U.S. Special Operations commandos on the ground, according to Air Force documentation and previous public reporting. It was in Colorado earlier this month, looping over Denver and Boulder, before flying to Portland on July 19, and has been circling above Portland and its suburbs since July 21, according to publicly available flight data aggregated by websites like ADS-B Exchange.
At a Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in 2015, as first reported by the defense blog War Is Boring, Air Force Col. Eric Forsyth detailed the Cougar’s capabilities for conducting intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, or ISR, showing off the equipment’s potential to aid U.S. troops from above. “With jacks for power, Ethernet, GPS and other linkages, engineers can easily install all sorts of gear,” wrote War Is Boring’s Joseph Trevithick at the time. “These systems would potentially be able to run long-range radars, powerful cameras, high-powered radios, laser range finders and more.”
The Cougar that has been orbiting Portland is registered to the 645th Aeronautical Engineering Group at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, quite a distance from Portland. The 645th previously operated under the code name “BIG SAFARI,” and was founded in 1952 to centralize the Air Force’s covert surveillance programs during the Cold War. “BIG SAFARI has long been an alternative acquisition source for certain high priority, rapid-reaction, urgent Combatant Commander needs,” former Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said in a 2010 address. A 2018 obit for former BIG SAFARI director Bill Grimes described the entity as “a secretive Air Force acquisition program for specialized special mission aircraft.”
While the Cougar’s impressive potential for wide-area wartime surveillance is clear, it’s less obvious why a warplane is flying tight circles — typically a dead giveaway of aerial surveillance — near domestic protests, or on whose orders. Last month, Motherboard reported similar surveillance flyovers by the National Guard over protests. It’s unclear whether the Air Force is engaging in active surveillance of the protesters or merely testing the plane’s capabilities to do so or doing something entirely unrelated.
The Air Force did not respond to The Intercept’s request for comment. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a Portland resident who was made aware of the flights by The Intercept’s inquiry to his office, made his own request to the Air Force for information. In a response to Wyden made after this story was initially published, the Air Force denied the flights were surveilling protesters. “This week the Air Force conducted previously planned test flights in the Northwest United States that required the environmental conditions typical of the region. This location was chosen several months ago due to the high likelihood of cloud cover desired for this equipment test,” the Air Force wrote to Wyden. “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, Oregon.” (According to flight tracking data, the surveillance plane left the Portland area early Friday morning.)
Wyden told The Intercept the Air Force’s response raised its own questions. “The Air Force should know better than to fly circles over American cities when armed federal troops are beating and gassing protesters below,” he said. “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.” (Wyden, who said would be “totally unacceptable” for the military to surveil protests in the U.S., initially told The Intercept that, in addition to an explanation, he has asked the Air Force “what data it is collecting and who approved the mission” — questions that remain unanswered.)
Other members of Congress were skeptical of the Air Force’s explanation. “Too much coincidence to be credible,” tweeted Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn, who suggested there should be Inspector General and Congressional investigations. “More than an IG investigation, it’s time now for the Senate Armed Services Committee to show strength & apply scrutiny. Hold hearings & investigate Trump’s misuse of military against Americans.”
Experts had raised questions about the test flights even before the Air Force made its claims.
“Big Safari is all about testing new equipment, so maybe we are seeing the next generation of spy tech being used domestically right now, or they are taking advantage of the situation to improve testing,” independent investigative journalist and plane-tracking enthusiast Sam Richards, who has been monitoring the flights, told The Intercept. “I think it is naive to not take these flights seriously given the way this administration is cracking down on these uprisings.”
The flights don’t seem to have taken place directly over downtown Portland, the epicenter of the protests, but rather at a range of 20 to 30 miles from the city’s center. That could still allow for fine-grained surveillance, however; a 2016 Bloomberg report on police aerial surveillance over Baltimore noted the small civilian planes used there could surveil an area of up to 30 square miles.
The mere presence near Portland of a plane designed to stress test SOCOM’s aerial spy gear is enough to concern some observers. “The apparent use of military aircraft in a domestic operation should set off all kinds of alarm bells,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Government Secrecy Project. “What is their mission? Under what authority are they operating, and who authorized them? It seems like the administration is pushing right through what had been established norms of transparency and accountability.”
The vast array of power surveillance gear this plane potentially could be carrying on these flights is cause for concerns over privacy and political expression. “These aircraft are believed to carry SIGINT [signals intelligence] sensors; if that is the case, then circling at that distance would probably (depending on the altitude) allow the sensors to collect data,” David Cenciotti, a retired Italian Air Force officer and aerospace journalist, told The Intercept, though he noted that he could only speculate without knowing the Cougar’s actual payload.
Update: July 25, 2020
This article has been updated to include responses made after publication by the Air Force to the office of Sen. Ron Wyden’s inquiries, Wyden’s reaction, a reaction from Sen. Richard Blumenthal, and information about when the Air Force plane left the Portland area.