Last summer, one week after the killing of George Floyd, the D.C. National Guard horrified human-rights groups by intimidating protesters in the capital by flying helicopters 50 feet above their heads on the city’s streets.
On Wednesday, a redacted investigative U.S. Army report into the incident not only condemned the flights as a misuse of medical aircraft—it also showed Guard troops celebrating their overly aggressive tactics, which witnesses said created a deafening noise and sent shards of glass through the air.
The investigation, reported by The Washington Post, uncovered texts between Brig. Gen. Robert K. Ryan, who oversaw the controversial mission, and an unnamed subordinate on June 1 as videos of the low-flying choppers spread on social media and cable news. It came hours after tear gas was used to break up crowds of protesters near St. John’s Episcopal Church to allow Donald Trump to stage a Bible-clutching photo-op at the site.
The unidentified subordinate said to his boss in a text that night: “Your helicopters are looking good!!!” The general replied: “OMG! I am out here too... Incredible. I got special permission to launch. Full authorities.”
The low maneuvers infuriated human-rights groups and military experts, particularly as four of the five helicopters were emblazoned with red crosses, meaning that they’re meant to be used for medical transports. At the time, former Army lawyer Geoffrey Corn described the tactics as “foolish,” adding: “The symbolic significance of the Red Cross is pervasive: It denotes a ‘noncombatant’ function of the armed forces.”
According to the Post, the investigation found that Gen. Ryan didn’t directly order the pilots to use helicopters to intimidate protesters, but an operations officer recalled that Ryan declared it was “D-Day for the National Guard,” which investigators say may have encouraged pilots to take more risks than usual. The investigators say that one of Ryan’s subordinates gave the go-ahead for crowd dispersal.
The report concluded that the pilots and their crews acted in “good faith” and carried out orders as they understood them. Some soldiers received administrative discipline over the incident, according to the Post, but no names were given and it’s not known what punishment was dished out.
Investigators also found “no evidence” for Ryan’s claim, which he gave the day after the flights as criticism started pouring in, that the aggressive tactics were “fully vetted” by former President Donald Trump.
In a Wednesday statement, the Army said that no laws were broken, and described that the decision to use the helicopters as “reasonable” due to the emergency situation that was unfolding that night.