New federal documents describe 2014 “Brass Star” military training exercise

By Matt Ehling and Mike Kaszuba

The U.S. military provided coaching on how to handle media inquiries during a 2014 military training exercise in Minneapolis and Saint Paul, and included advice on how to limit information should a “serious accident or incident involving injury or death” occur.

The latest documents from the U.S. Special Operations Command, which were obtained by Saint Paul-based non-profit Public Record Media (PRM), shed new light on an August 2014 exercise that allowed the military to test urban assault tactics while using a series of prominent buildings in the state’s two largest cities.  The mayors and police chiefs in Minneapolis and Saint Paul – along with the area’s Congressional delegation – were to be notified in advance of the military training, according to the documents.

Documents describe media strategy

The records include an outline of a “Strategy to Reduce Risk of Media Exposure or Adverse Public Reaction” and state that if a person participating in the exercise is injured, a government public affairs officer should acknowledge the incident “only if publicized by media.”  The newest records show that the military also provided sample public statements to be used “in the event this training attracts unsolicited public attention.”

The documents featured a short, scripted statement that would be released should the military exercise lead to a serious accident, or cause injuries.  The statement read:

“???? number of service members were injured/killed when (Describe incident) in the vicinity of ??? while performing ???? at ???? local time today while participating in exercise (BRASS STAR) (U).  A Board of Inquiry will be appointed to investigate the accident/incident.  The names of the dead or injured and the exact cause of the mishap will not be released until the next of kin have been notified.  For more information, please contact the (MAJCOM/TYCOM, provide commercial phone number).”

The documents for the 2014 exercise, code named “Brass Star,” also detail how military officials tried to emphasize that the training – which involved roughly 200 participants – should be considered routine.  “This is routine training conducted to represent some level of a war fighting skill or mission enhancement,” a public affairs plan stated.

The newest records also provided a scripted answer should officials be asked why the Twin Cities was chosen for the exercise.  “Why is this training being conducted in Minneapolis?” a sample question asked.  A stock reply answered:  “The sites we are using offer an excellent training area for the challenges of an urban environment and affords us the opportunity to refine our techniques without traveling [too] far from home.”

The 2014 exercise came two years after a similar military endeavor took place in the Twin Cities, and utilized many of the same locations.  

The sites included the Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul, the Federal Reserve Building in Minneapolis, the old Macy’s store and US Bank building in Saint Paul, and the Capella Tower in Minneapolis.  Other sites were the Pillsbury “A” Mill, the Willard Elementary School, and the IDS Tower in Minneapolis, as well as the light rail platform at Fort Snelling, the Ecolab building, and the Indian Mounds burial site in Saint Paul.

The sites also included the towboat JL Fleming and the Padleford Riverboat on Harriet Island in Saint Paul, the water treatment facility in Fridley and – as backup sites – the Ford Power Plant on the Mississippi River and the Sacred Heart Convent on 5th Street in Saint Paul.

Operation came as a surprise to many

Although the newly released federal documents show that the 2014 exercise was “coordinated” with local police and then-mayors Betsy Hodges of Minneapolis and Chris Coleman of Saint Paul, earlier documents obtained by PRM highlighted how the exercise caught other officials off guard and surprised and angered many residents.  The earlier document production came from Minnesota government entities, including the City of Saint Paul.

“Three military helicopters are buzzing my building,” said an alarmed Dick Anderson, who lived in a downtown Saint Paul high-rise and left a voicemail with the city shortly after 9:00pm on August 18. “I’m on the 27th floor and can look down on them. It’s outrageous that the mayor allowed them to do it!”

City e-mails revealed that Saint Paul’s then-public school superintendent was equally surprised. “We got helicopters flying around downtown buildings. What is going on? We are so freak[ed] out,” Valeria Silva wrote in an e-mail. When she was told the helicopters were part of a Department of Defense drill, Silva e-mailed:  “Omg. Super freaky.”  

The earlier documents also quoted Kristin Beckmann, Saint Paul’s deputy mayor, as describing one City Council member as “pissed” and another as being “in a tizzy” over the training operation.  The mayor’s environmental policy director contacted the Metropolitan Airports Commission to see if it knew about the helicopter maneuvers.

The helicopter operations generated substantial media coverage, which included negative reactions from some Minneapolis and Saint Paul city council members.

Role of law enforcement 

The recently released federal records have been partially redacted to obscure certain operational details.  It is standard practice under the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for government agencies to label the redacted areas of documents with a reference to the provision of the FOIA that provides the legal justification for the redaction.

In a series of Power Point slides that outline the “Brass Star” exercise, various sections are obscured by gray redactions marked “(b)(1)” including portions of slides labeled “training objectives.”  The “(b)(1)” notation is a reference to the FOIA’s “national security” exemption, which permits the withholding of national defense information classified by an executive order.

However, other portions of the “training objectives” slide have a different citation – “(b)(7)(E)”— the FOIA exemption relating to law enforcement “techniques and procedures.”

Almost one entire slide – save for a header that reads “Week 1 Overview” has been redacted to protect law enforcement techniques under exemption (b)(7)(E).  The same is true of a “Week 2 Overview.”

Similarly, a “Concept of Operations” slide is entirely redacted with a (b)(1) “national security” exemption, but also with a (b)(7)(E) “law enforcement” exemption.  The prevalence of law enforcement-related redactions raises questions about the role that police played in the overall operation.

Many of the recently released documents reference specific roles for “LLE” — local law enforcement.  Most duties noted in the documents involve providing cordons around the military training sites.  One document states that local police will also provide “role players” in addition to securing the training areas.

Records previously obtained from the City of Saint Paul included a copy of a federal document labeled “Department of Defense Instruction 1322.28,” which described operational guidance for “realistic military training (RMT)” off of federal property.  The 1322.28 document noted that RMT training should “expand efforts … to coordinate military training requirements with civilian law enforcement support” and “concurrently and legally support law enforcement and homeland security requirements.”  The use of the United States military to perform explicit law enforcement functions – such as conducting arrests – is prohibited by the federal Posse Comitatus Act.  However, certain military “civil support” operations are permitted under current law.  

The newly produced federal documents do not describe the extent to which local law enforcement received cross-training or other “civil support” benefits – if any – during the course of the military exercise.  A 2014 e-mail from then-Assistant Saint Paul Police (SPPD) Chief Todd Axtell to the city council stated that the “only SPPD role is to ensure public safety in and around the training areas.”

However, other e-mails produced by the city in 2014 indicated that training by military special operations forces was part of an ongoing discussion between SPPD and the Department of Defense.  In an August, 2014 e-mail, an unnamed military official told SPPD’s Tim Flynn that he was “getting inquiries from Minneapolis PD about us training you.”  In the e-mail, the military official also noted that negative publicity surrounding the military training had endangered “your trip this way next year and our future trips in that direction.”