Exclusive: Military Fears Domestic Spying As Trump Orders Mexico Mission
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.