(Matt Ehling) In August of 2014, military helicopters flew low over residential neighborhoods of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, engaged in a series of night-time training exercises. The exercises involved the Naval Warfare Development Group – a “special forces” component of the U.S. Navy – and were aimed at enhancing urban combat tactics.
Just as they had two years earlier, military personnel had come to the Twin Cities to conduct counter-terrorism training operations in an urban environment. And just as before, those operations commenced with little advance notice to the public.
Follow-up to 2012 exercise
Records obtained from the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) by Public Record Media (PRM) indicate that, in many ways, the 2014 training was built upon foundations laid two years earlier. Correspondence between the U.S. Navy and the MPD involved many of the same figures who participated in the 2012 operation – most centrally, those tasked to the Minneapolis SWAT unit.
An April, 2014 e-mail from MPD’s Jonathan Kingsbury to SWAT Commander Robert Skoro references the upcoming military exercise, and notes that “it is very similar to the August 2012 event.” Kingsbury also states that the operation “has been briefed and approved by the Mayor’s office … and is being hosted by the SWAT officers of the Minneapolis Police Department.”
As referenced by Kingsbury, the 2014 exercises had been solicited by the U.S. military via a letterdelivered to Minneapolis mayor Betsy Hodges. The letter requested the Mayor’s support for “low-intensity urban tactical training” by special forces personnel who are “constantly refining tactics to learn how to most effectively engage the enemy while ensuring the safety of non-combatants.”
As with the 2012 exercises, it appears that plans were made to provide cross-training exercises for Minneapolis police officers. “Hopefully,” Kingsbury’s states in his e-mail, “we will have the opportunity to get some of our folks into the game like we did last time.”
Throughout the MPD documents, repeated references are made to the Navy’s desire to keep the profile of the event as discreet as possible. A January, 2014 e-mail from MPD Deputy Chief Edie Frizell characterizes the training mission in just those terms. “This is a highly respected and security sensitive effort,” Frizell writes. “The training was conducted in 2012 in Minneapolis with little or no fanfare – that is the way they want it.”
Frizell’s message states that strict security protocols extended even to the Navy’s initial, written solicitation. Frizell recounts that the Navy’s letter was hand delivered, and that face-to-face planning conversations were required “because of the sensitivity of the training.”
The Navy’s letter to Mayor Hodges expands on the security concerns surrounding the exercise, and explicitly requests that advance notice of the event be limited. “Due to the sensitivities of this training,” the letter states, “we respectfully request that any information pertaining to this training be excluded from automatic public release.”
Documents written seven months later – just prior to the the training itself – indicate that the Navy’s wishes appear to have been adhered to by the MPD. An e-mail from Jonathan Kingsbury to Robert Skoro notes that a memo on the exercise had been disseminated to precinct commanders, but that it did not contain “much info.”
Messages traded among MPD personnel indicate that police were directly involved in portions of the Navy operation, and also provided perimeter security at the various training sites.
The presence of low-flying, black helicopters was the most obvious sign to the public that military training was underway, but records show that Naval exercises had already been occurring a week previous to this. Naval forces had commenced ground operations on August 11th, independent of aerial support. Helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft arrived on August 17th, and the “full mission profile” of combined air-ground operations ran from August 18 to 21.
A closing ceremony for the exercises was held at the Air National Guard museum on August 21st, just prior to the commencement of the final exercise. An unidentified federal official notified MPD personnel that the event was a closed ceremony, but that “DOD specifically invited all of you to attend.” Chief Harteau’s administrative assistant replied that her schedule was not open at that time, but that the Chief “sent her best.”
Closer military-police collaboration?
While much about the 2014 exercise appears to have paralleled its 2012 predecessor, MPD documents indicate that there were some notable – and perhaps significant – changes to the training regime.
Documents obtained by PRM in 2012 suggested that the Navy’s training operation was – at the time – undertaken for the purpose of preparing special operations forces for foreign deployment. However, records relating to the 2014 exercise include hints that some aspects of that training may have had a domestic focus.
According to an e-mail from an anonymous federal official, “There is a significant change in our ‘template’ since the August 2012 exercise,” and as such “we are under new DOD regulatory guidance for this type of training.”
The military’s solicitation letter to Mayor Hodges included a list of training specifics that mirrored language in its 2012 letter. Those specifics included training for “low visibility movement, low-altitude precision helicopter operations, surveillance, and counter-surveillance.” However, the Navy’s 2014 letter also stated that its exercises would help its personnel in “preserving evidence for criminal prosecution” and that the relationships established with urban law enforcement professionals would be critical to the Navy’s “future success.”
“Evidence collection” highlighted
Due to the existence of the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, federal military personnel have largely been barred from participating in civilian law enforcement in a direct, operational capacity. While Congress has provided Posse Comitatus exceptions for logistics and counter-narcotics support, federal law still prohibits military personnel from engaging in arrests, evidence collection, and other tasks in support of domestic public safety and criminal prosecution.
Do the references to “evidence collection” by Navy personnel indicate that the military is actively preparing to undertake such operations on the domestic front? Or do the references point to some other function?
One possibility might be that Navy Special Forces personnel are being trained to preserve material from foreign combat zones in the service of later, federal terrorism prosecutions. It should be noted that criminal prosecution was a cornerstone of the Clinton administration’s approach to counter-terrorism. During the 1990s, multiple foreign nationals were brought before American courts, including the principals in the bombings of the USS Cole and the U.S. Embassy in Kenya.
In more recent years, military personnel have been instrumental in the removal of computers and material from foreign combat zones. For instance, in May of 2011, Special Forces personnel obtained thousands of pages of documents from the raid of Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan – material that held a high (and ongoing) intelligence value. The same material might also yield valuable evidence for possible criminal trials of al-Qeada operatives upon their later capture.
At the same time, references to the Navy’s increased collaboration with “urban law enforcement professionals” clearly indicates a domestic purpose to some of the training, but the extent is impossible to determine from the MPD documents alone. PRM has two other pending record requests related to the 2014 exercise, and hopes to make available additional details about this matter soon.
MPD inquiry into training event
Despite the Navy’s wishes for a low-profile event, the fact that training missions occurred over residential areas spurred more public attention and media coverage than in 2012. That coverage registered a high level of public concern about the safety and implications of the operation, and also generated a strong response from city officials who had been kept out of the communications loop.
Minneapolis City Council Member Blong Yang was quoted on KSTP TV as saying that the Minneapolis City Council was “not notified of the event.” Likewise, Council Member Cam Gordon told the City Pages newspaper that he felt “like an idiot” for being unable to respond to constituent questions with specific information. In the aftermath of the event, Council Member Yang called for public hearings.
MPD records indicate that inquiries had also commenced within the police department itself. An August 29, 2014 e-mail from MPD’s Tony Schoenberger to SWAT chief Robert Skoro indicates that Chief Harteau had commissioned a “review” of events surrounding the training exercise. Schoenberger’s message states that the review “is not an investigation and there is no allegation of misconduct or inappropriate action by anyone involved.” Instead, he notes that the intention of the review is for the Chief to “better and more thoroughly understand the role of MPD in this training.”
The existence of this inquiry apparently delayed PRM’s access to police records for a time. September, 2014 e-mails from MPD’s David Pena to PRM stated that documents related to the training exercise were part of an “internal investigation” and thus could not be disclosed at the time.
PRM will be posting additional training documents as it receives them from the St. Paul Police Department and federal officials.