Schiff demands answers from Pentagon on monitoring domestic unrest

·National Security and Investigations Reporter

WASHINGTON — Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, wrote the Pentagon Monday expressing concerns that the Defense Department might be involved in “unlawful or unethical activities” related to the government’s response to recent nationwide protests.

Schiff, a Democrat from California, wrote Joseph Kernan, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence and security, asking about whether the Pentagon has been asked or was already supporting efforts to surveil the protests. The letter comes days after Yahoo News revealed that employees of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) expressed concern during a virtual town hall that they might be reassigned or tasked with supporting domestic intelligence efforts in some capacity.

In his letter, Schiff cited the “sudden and impulsive manner in which the Armed Forces and law enforcement components from across the federal government have been mobilized to date, and the lack of public transparency regarding their orders,” calling these recent actions “deeply troubling.”

Joseph Kernan, left, and Guy Roberts at their confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, November 2017. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Joseph Kernan, left, and Guy Roberts at their confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, November 2017. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

“We are concerned that they have been or might be asked to undertake unlawful or unethical activities that could violate civil liberties and erode even further the legitimacy of, and trust in, the military and law enforcement,” he wrote.

According to the letter, the committee received a preliminary briefing on Friday, just a day after Yahoo News first reported that the DIA had set up an “internal coordination group” to respond to requests from other parts of government about the protests. 

However, Schiff requested additional information “as the situation develops.” A spokesperson for Schiff declined to provide additional commentary on the letter.

The DIA is focused almost entirely on gathering foreign information to support the Defense Department. 

Attorney General William Barr has said he believes there may be foreign influence involved in the domestic protests, which if true could provide a legal authority to allow the DIA to assist with investigating those connections. However, so far no public evidence of a foreign connection has emerged in connection with the protests, which were sparked by the killing of George Floyd, an African-American man, in police custody.

A spokesman for the DIA said the agency was not straying outside its legal authorities, but told Yahoo News that it had set up an “internal coordination group to respond to increased and appropriate Department requests for information.” Yahoo News reported that DIA Director Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley personally reassured his workforce that the DIA was “focused on the foreign nexus” alone and that he would act as “top cover” if any employees felt they were being asked to do something that made them uncomfortable. 

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo)
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo)

Schiff asked Kernan for further confirmation that military agencies, including the DIA, are not being asked to support law enforcement responses to civil unrest, “including to monitor, assess, or otherwise track Americans who are taking to the streets or otherwise engaging in constitutionally protected activity within the United States.”

Additionally, Schiff asked whether the Trump administration was asking or putting pressure on the Pentagon to do otherwise.

He requested additional briefings from the Pentagon on these issues no later than June 12 and emphasized congressional oversight on the role of intelligence gathering. 

“It is precisely because of past abuses of power and illegal or inappropriate activities by [intelligence community] agencies that Congressional oversight of the [intelligence community] was established,” Schiff wrote. “Ensuring that we prevent a recurrence of past abuses is critical to protecting the civil liberties of the American people.”

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