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Helicopters over DC protesters broke regulations while commander was driving home, DC Guard concludes

National Guard military police officers block demonstrators during a protest against the death of George Floyd, near the White House in Washington, D.C., on June 1, 2020. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)
November 04, 2020

Two D.C. National Guard helicopters that flew low over protesters in Washington, D.C., on the night of June 1 were not properly authorized to be there — and were directed by a lieutenant colonel who was far from the scene, driving home in his car, according to an initial investigation by the D.C. National Guard.

The superior officer who authorized the deployment claimed he didn’t know that the regulations required him to have higher-level approval to use the helicopters at all, and that in any case, he in no way told the lieutenant colonel that the helicopters should be used for crowd dispersal.

Now the D.C. National Guard and the Defense Department Inspector General’s office appear to be at odds over who should take responsibility for the incident, which became one of the most high-profile examples of President Donald Trump’s militarized response to protests over the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by police officers in Minneapolis in May.

Senior Army and defense officials have for months claimed that they would soon release their report into the tasking of the helicopters. Yet the report has remained under lock and key, with officials saying nothing more than the report was currently in the hands of Acting Defense Department Inspector General Sean O’Connell, a Trump appointee.

The following article is based on internal Defense Department documents viewed by Defense One and on interviews with officials with knowledge of the events. It paints the most complete picture to date of the circumstances that led two D.C. National Guard helicopters to hover less than 100 feet above street level in what critics described as an unacceptable “show of force” against American citizens — and helps explain why, five months after the fact, there has still been no public explanation.

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The whole debacle played out like a bungled game of telephone.

There were 1,200 D.C. National Guardsmen deployed in the Washington, D.C. area on the night of June 1. They had been summoned amid massive protests surrounding the White House, some of which had devolved into looting and other violent behavior. Thousands more had been mustered from other states through a controversial legal loophole, and the 82nd Airborne was staged outside of the city to respond if Trump invoked the Insurrection Act.

The D.C. Guard also had five helicopters on standby, thanks to operations orders signed in the previous two days by Maj. Gen. William Walker, who commands the district’s Guard. The two Lakotas and three Black Hawks were readied to provide medical evacuation, troop transport and other logistics needs, a source familiar with the events of June 1 said.

At roughly 7 p.m. that night, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Wingblade emailed his superior, Brig. Gen. Robert Ryan, to tell him that the Secret Service had given the Guard special permission to fly over the highly restricted airspace above the National Mall and the White House. Wingblade, as the lead aviation staff officer, was the subject matter expert and top advisor to D.C. Guard leadership on all matters involving Army National Guard aviation. Ryan was the commander of the division of the D.C. Guard responsible for responding to the civil unrest.

Shortly afterwards, Ryan called Wingblade, who was in his car driving home. The general told the lieutenant colonel to put the five helicopters into the air over the National Mall. In sworn interviews with D.C. Guard investigators, Ryan insisted that he did not instruct Wingblade to use the helicopters for crowd dispersal or intimidation, but rather to observe the protests, deter looting and other criminal activity, and provide emergency medical evacuation if necessary.

Ryan “believed the presence of military helicopters along the National Mall would be a general deterrent to the rioting and looting that had plagued the capital over the last few days and which necessitated the 1900 curfew and the presence of the D.C. National Guard in the first place,” according to an internal D.C. Guard memo from Aug. 3 detailing the timeline and the rationale behind the investigation’s findings.

Wingblade, in his interviews with D.C. Guard investigators, remembered it differently. He told investigators that Ryan told him “I need you to orbit around the cross to disperse any type of looting, mayhem, whatsoever.”

The D.C. Guard’s senior enlisted leader was also on the call, on speakerphone on Ryan’s end. He told investigators that, “At no time in the conversation did I hear BG Ryan instruct or authorize aviation assets to fly at low altitudes. Nor did BG Ryan speak of utilizing aviation assets to disperse crowds.”

Although every other key official involved in the response to the protests was at work somewhere in the Washington, D.C., area, Wingblade declined to return to Fort Belvoir’s Davison Army Airfield in Arlington, Va., according to the National Guard memo. Instead, he called his unit’s operations officer and the pilot-in-command of the UH-72A Lakota helicopter that would later be seen in viral videos hovering above the heads of protesters. According to the National Guard, Wingblade told none of his superiors that he was headed home.

In his interviews, Wingblade said that he told his two subordinates that “the tasking that I received was to kinda go over the crowds wherever there was any type of looting and then just try to orbit around the crowds, if there was any looting, and whatever that mission is, but just show a presence there if there is anything kinda crazy going on.”

These two pilots briefed the mission to the remaining pilots when they arrived at the airfield. Once the helicopters were in the air, Ryan texted D.C. Guard commander Walker to tell him that he had directed the deployment and that they were currently flying.

“Absolutely outstanding. Thanks,” Walker texted back.

Walker then told Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy of the deployment, who said that the helicopters should continue to “observe and report” on the situation below.

Sometime after the first helicopters launched — before they were seen hovering over frightened protesters — Ryan got a group text from a subordinate commander with a photo of one of the helicopters above the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool.

“LTC Wingblade, your helicopters are looking good!!”

“OMG! I am out here too. Incredible. I got special permission to launch. Full authorities,” Ryan responded.

Not long after that, two of the five helicopters — a Black Hawk and a Lakota marked with the red cross emblem — were whipping up dirt and debris and buffeting tree branches above the heads of protesters gathered near the White House.

It caused an immediate uproar, both inside and out of the Pentagon. According to the D.C. Guard memo, one Army official reached out to Ryan directly the next day to raise concerns about the safety of the maneuver and the optics of using military helicopters in what many interpreted as a “show of force” against Americans exercising their First Amendment rights. Ryan, according to the memo, defended it in a text: “Presidential approval…Fully vetted.”

Outside critics, many of whom were former military, hammered the Guard and the president. In particular, critics homed in on the red cross emblazoned on the side of the low-hovering Lakota — the universal symbol for non-hostile medical intent. Black Hawks, others pointed out, are used in war zones like Afghanistan.

Because Trump has ultimate command over the D.C. National Guard through the Secretary of the Army, critics blamed his bellicose response to the protests.

“Normally, when the Guard goes on a mission in their state status, they’re under the direct authority of a governor or at the request of a governor,” said Mike Taheri, who retired as a two-star from the National Guard Bureau in August. “But in D.C., there’s no political accountability. The secretary of the Army doesn’t care about the people of D.C. — he cares about what Trump thinks.”

“Special permission” … from whom?

McCarthy, who as Army secretary heads the chain of the command for the D.C. National Guard, ordered an investigation into the matter. Initially, it was to be completed within weeks. By the first week of July, the results were on Gen. Walker’s desk, and the D.C. National Guard had a news release ready to go.

Walker, after reviewing the findings, concluded that Wingblade had garbled Ryan’s intent when he briefed members of his pilot team over the phone. As a result, the D.C. Guard believed, some of the air crew understood their mission to include flying low and loud to disperse the crowds gathered near the White House. The D.C. Guard believed the pilots acted in good faith and found no fault with Ryan’s conduct.

The investigation found that the low-flying helicopters were operated safely. In particular, the UH-72 Lakota that hovered over protesters near the intersection of 5th and E Streets had two engines, and could have safely made an emergency landing without endangering the protesters below had one failed.

But the report did find one major violation of Army regulations. The use of medical helicopters for non-medical missions requires higher-level approval — approval that was neither sought nor obtained for the June 1 mission. Four of the five helicopters were medevac aircraft. The National Guard laid the blame for that oversight at the feet of the aviation commander, Wingblade, who as the subject matter expert in the chain of command was responsible for knowing the relevant regulation and briefing his superior, Ryan.

In other words, four of the five helicopters over D.C. streets on the night of June 1 lacked the Army’s authorization to fly.

Walker, after reviewing the findings, recommended that Wingblade receive a formal reprimand, known as a GOMOR, for actions resulting in the unauthorized use of four ambulance aircraft. And he ordered the creation of new procedures to prevent the same kind of mix-up from happening again.

That’s when matters hit a snag. The investigation went to McCarthy’s office in the Pentagon. Then the Department of Defense Inspector General, which has first crack at any investigation involving a general officer if the IG wants, raised concerns about the report. The IG’s office argued that the report should have addressed the jurisdictional authorities governing that Guard’s presence in the city. Officials suggested that closer scrutiny of Ryan’s conduct was warranted, in particular suggesting that his lack of knowledge of the regulation governing non-medical use of hospital helicopters shouldn’t shield him from responsibility. The text message he sent to other Guard officials indicating that he had “special permission” to conduct flights in D.C. also created the impression that Ryan knew he needed permission and perhaps misinterpreted a potential directive from the chief of staff of the Army, Gen. James McConville, or the Army Secretary, Ryan McCarthy.

On Aug. 3, D.C. National Guard leaders responded to the inspector general’s concerns with its memo laying out the rationale behind Walker’s ultimate findings.

It dismisses any argument that Ryan should have known that he needed permission from a higher-up to use the hospital helicopters.

“LTC Wingblade, whose job it is to know and to advise his superiors on applicable regulations and policies, appears to have lacked fundamental and essential knowledge or to have been willfully dissembling,” the memo states.

According to the memo, Ryan testified that when the videos of the incident went viral, he reached out to Wingblade for clarification and was told the use of the helicopters was authorized. Only later, Ryan said, did he learn that it had broken Army regulations. Wingblade, for his part, claimed that when he got the call to direct the deployment of the helicopters, Ryan said that he had gotten special permission to launch.

Walker credited Ryan and the senior enlisted officer’s accounts of the phone call over Wingblade’s version of events. The memo suggests that Wingblade may have misinterpreted Ryan’s text message that he got “special permission” to mean he had received a waiver from senior officials to use the hospital helicopters — when, according to Ryan, the “special permission” he was referring to was the authorization from the Secret Service to fly in the restricted airspace of the White House that Wingblade himself had conveyed to him in the earlier email.

The memo emphatically denies that McCarthy or McConville had any prior knowledge of the tasking of the helicopters until they were already in the air, at which point McCarthy said they should stay aloft to “observe.”

The memo also dismisses the inspector general’s concerns about the Guard’s jurisdiction, arguing that the D.C. National Guard’s authority is clear under the federal statute governing the District of Columbia and the long-recognized constitutional authority of the president to employ troops under his command to protect federal property and persons.

A public accounting?

But by the time the D.C. Guard sent the Aug. 3 memo to the inspector general, the matter was out of the Guard’s hands and belonged fully to McCarthy, who had tasked the investigation in the first place.

In September, according to a D.C. National Guard official, the Army inspector general refiled the report with the DOD inspector general. It is not clear what changes the Army inspector general made to the D.C. Guard’s original report and recommendations.

A spokesman for the Defense Department inspector general, Dwrena Allen, said that the office is still reviewing the information provided by the Army IG and that the review is ongoing.

“We have asked additional questions and obtained documentation that was not previously included in the latest Army IG submission,” Allen said.

“As we conduct our oversight review, it may be necessary to obtain additional information from the Army to ensure a complete and final report,” she said in a statement. “At the conclusion of our oversight review, we will notify the Army of our results.”

It is not clear when that might be — or when the results may become public. McCarthy has said publicly that its release depends on the completion of the inspector general’s review of the matter — which he said on Oct. 13 was “imminent” — although the authority to release the report rests solely with the Army. According to an Army official, the Army typically doesn’t consider an investigation complete until all associated reviews are complete, including, in this case, the inspector general’s.

Allen denied that the upcoming election had any bearing on the timing of the IG office’s review.

The debate between the D.C. Guard and officials in the inspector general’s office has clearly become tense. A D.C. Guard official expressed concerns that the inspector general’s handling of the investigation has become politicized.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, a combat veteran and former helicopter pilot, in particular has pressured the inspector general and Defense Secretary Mark Esper to provide answers.

The D.C. Guard memo states that it was created for the “historical record” because the Guard is concerned it may never be able to release the findings. It raises specific concerns that the inspector general’s office is “steering” the focus of the investigation onto a more senior officer — Ryan — and “suggest[ing] without evidence that a more senior officer has potentially committed misconduct.”

Meanwhile, some guardsmen who were in the Washington, D.C., area during the protests suspect that what’s really happening is an effort to pin the blame on lower-ranking officials to protect more senior officials — some say Ryan, some say the Army secretary.

“I don’t know what those conversations were, but at the end of the day Ryan was the task force commander and one of the units that he was responsible for violated nearly every FAA law to include international law by using a medevac helicopter to forcibly disperse peaceful protesters,” said one D.C. guardsmen in Washington the night of the protests. “When you look at it in totality, you’re like, ‘Holy shit.’ Ryan needs to be held accountable.”

Others suspect the concern goes higher.

“They may very well be trying to protect the secretary of the Army and the chief of staff,” said Taheri, the retired National Guard Bureau two-star. “I suspect there was a lot more involvement from the highest level that they don’t want to highlight.”

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