We knew at the time that Donald Trump sent an army of contracted goons from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in to the city of Portland, Oregon, in the summer of 2020 to arrest citizens protesting against police brutality—summarily sweeping people off the street on the pretext of a kind of preventative arrest based on groundless speculation that they were “antifa” conspiring to “burn down our cities,” as Trump put it—that it was an outrage against the Constitution and the rule of law.
What we didn’t know (and an internal DHS review that only surfaced this week reveals) was that it was also an extraordinary exercise in authoritarian incompetence. It demonstrates that senior DHS leadership pushed unfounded conspiracy theories about antifascists, encouraged the contractors they hired to violate protesters’ constitutional rights, and made spurious connections, based on no real evidence, between protesters who engaged in criminal activity. It also revealed poor training and inadequate guidance, which contributed to the federal intelligence officers’ lack of knowledge on legal restrictions for the collection of such information, and turned the entire operation into a massive mess.
“The report was a stunning analysis of the incompetence and mismanagement and abuse of power during the summer of 2020,” Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, who released a redacted version of the document Friday, told Oregon Public Broadcasting.
Originally released on Jan. 6—and its contents subsequently overlooked due to that day’s events—the internal review focused on DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I/A). It found that senior DHS leaders attempted to politicize intelligence in order to support Trump’s claims that a massive “antifa” conspiracy was behind the many anti-police protests around the nation, but particularly so in Portland. The same leaders pressured subordinates to illegally search phones, and when legal staff objected, sought to cut them out of the discussion.
A team of open source intelligence collectors, tasked with analyzing information obtained from public sources, also created dossiers on protesters and journalists—which they called “baseball cards”—despite having no clear connections to domestic terrorism or security threats.
“The report documents shocking, coordinated efforts by our government to abuse its power and to invade liberty in violation of the Constitution,” said Oregon federal public defender Lisa Hay. “In Portland, we were concerned that the government unconstitutionally collected information, including through the illegal search of protestors’ cellphones last summer. This report confirms that was their intent.”
Over the course of the summer, between June 4 and Aug. 31, DHS sent at least 755 officers—from agencies that ranged from Federal Protective Service to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, as well as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Secret Service, and U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis personnel—to Portland, tasked with protecting the city’s downtown federal courthouse. The building had come under regular attack during nightly social justice protests that arose initially from the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in late May.
The Floyd protests were an international phenomenon, spreading to over 2,000 cities and towns, occurring in all 50 states as well as in over 60 other countries. Demonstrators turned out en masse to support those seeking justice for Floyd and the wider Black Lives Matter movement, and standing up against police brutality. Most of these protests lasted one or two days; however, in Portland, where police brutality issues had taken on an extraordinary edge, the protests became a daily affair—one that eventually surpassed 100 consecutive days.
By early July, most of the protests had become quiet and nonviolent, with only sporadic violence and vandalism, with the notable exception of an arson attack on the federal courthouse downtown—which is about the time that DHS agents began showing up, wearing anonymous military gear, arresting protesters on the streets, and spiriting them away in unmarked vans.
Over the next few nights, they clashed with protesters in the area around the courthouse, using flashbangs and munitions to disperse the crowds. One protester was shot in the forehead by an “impact weapon” round that caused him brain damage. Another protester—a Navy veteran who was attempting to speak with the DHS officers—was brutally beaten with batons, breaking his hand.
That was when the scene exploded. On the night of July 24, thousands of Portlanders took to the streets to protest the arrests. The protest was entirely peaceful—drum circles, groups of teachers and nurses, a marching band, a “Wall of Moms” wearing yellow shirts—until the DHS officers began unleashing tear gas on the crowd. A brigade of “fathers” arrived with leaf blowers and blew the gas back at the officers.
The escalated protests continued nightly. DHS officials called the protests “criminal violence perpetrated by anarchists targeting city and federal properties.” It brought in reinforcements on July 28, even though many of these officers lacked proper training, and both Mayor Ted Wheeler and Gov. Kate Brown—along with both of the state’s senators—demanded the DHS police be withdrawn. Eventually, they negotiated a phased withdrawal, and the DHS arrests ceased.
It was shortly apparent that the right-wing attempt to make “antifa” and Black Lives Matter into bogeymen responsible for the protest violence was utterly bogus. An Associated Press review of the arrest documents from the summer’s protests showed that most of the people taken into custody were not left-wing radicals and had no ties to larger movements. It had already been clear for months that “antifa” was not responsible for the violence—which in many instances appeared in fact to have been instigated by police pushing back on protesters. This didn’t prevent Trump from declaring on Twitter that he intended to have antifa designated a terrorist organization, though in fact he lacked the statutory power to do so.
The internal review at DHS conducted afterward revealed that the push for concocting intelligence about antifa intended to fit this narrative came from the top. Though the names are redacted, it is safe to assume that Chad Wolf, the DHS unconfirmed “acting secretary,” was particularly involved, since he made numerous public statements at the time that mirror the shape of the discussions with the agency.
At the time the protests broke out, Wolf appeared on Fox News with Tucker Carlson and announced that the Department of Justice had plans “targeting and investigating the head of these organizations, [and] the individuals that are paying for these individuals to move across the country.”
Trump himself appeared on Fox with Laura Ingraham and claimed that “people that are in the dark shadows” are “controlling the streets” of Democratic cities. When Ingraham warned him that he sounded like he was promoting a conspiracy theory, he doubled down with a pitch-perfect rendition of the “evil antifa thug” caricature central to the narrative attacking the movement.
“We had somebody get on a plane from a certain city this weekend, and in the plane it was almost completely loaded with thugs wearing these dark uniforms, black uniforms, with gear and this and that,” he claimed.
The DHS internal review found that Wolf and his immediate underlings at I/A pushed staffers to describe the protests as “Violent Antifa Anarchist Inspired” (VAAI) actions—an entirely new category that had no evidentiary support or background.
“You could see where this VAAI definition was coming from a mile away,” a career analyst is quoted saying in the report. “He got tired of [Redacted Name] telling him they did not have the reporting and he was convinced it was ANTIFA so he was going to fix the problem by changing what the collectors were reporting.”
An email was sent to DHS senior leaders “instructing them that henceforth, the violent opportunists in Portland were to be reported as VAAI, unless the intel ‘show[ed]...something different.”
The report says that the DHS leadership “did make other attempts to controvert the collection-analysis processm,” pointing particularly to the push for VAAI designations. One memo from the same leader posited that “we have overwhelmingly intelligence regarding the ideologies driving individuals toward violence,” but the analysts responded with factual reality: “In fact, overwhelming intelligence regarding the motivations or affiliations of the violent protesters did not exist,” the report says. “Indeed, the review team could not identify any intelligence that existed to support [Redacted Name]’s assertion.”
Wolf and his team even concocted an analytical framework for the protests—claiming that there are four distinct phases in which they develop—that appeared to have been pulled from their nether regions, and then required analysts to work overtime to come up with evidence to support it and put it into a report which then went utterly ignored:
A second example of the manner in which [Redacted Name] turned analysis upside down was his dictate regarding the “Four Phases of Protest.” Apparently, [Redacted Name] came to the conclusion sometime after George Floyd’s death and the subsequent protests that four phases of protest exist, and he wanted to say, at least temporarily, whether a protest was in a particular phase, and the indicators of that phase. As with the VAAI term, [Redacted Name] devised this idea about phases of protest on his own. From the analysts’ perspective, the problem was that they were typically asked to investigate a question, not given a conclusion and told to write a paper to support it. In this case, [Redacted Name] gave the analysts four phases and told them to find support for his proposition. Aggravating the task, they were given 48 hours over a weekend so the paper could be sent to state and local partners. … At any rate, the paper was sent to state and local officials, where it was greeted like “a tree that fell in the forest that no one heard.”
The review also noted that Federal Protective Services officers requested assistance from DHS’s Homeland Identities Targeting and Exploitation Center to search protesters’ cellphones. The latter team found the searches were illegal, and resisted pressure from senior Homeland Security leaders to assist in the searches.
And then there were the “baseball cards.” These dossiers were compiled by freshly hired collections analysts who targeted people arrested during the protest and suspected of having “antifa” or BLM connections. The internal review found that out of the 48 reports provided, 13 of them involved people accused of non-violent offenses, such as trespassing or failing to comply with an order, with no clear tie to any national security threat or mission. One “baseball card” report focused on a person who was arrested and accused of flying a drone and identified on social media as a journalist.
Republicans took the bogus narrative and functionally made it an official one widely believed across the country—namely, that “antifa and BLM burned down cities across the nation”—and have even used it to justify the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. At congressional hearings, they have even tried to claim that examples of lethal violence, such as the slaying of an FPS officer in Oakland, by far-right extremists was the product of “antifa” radicals.
The narrative also was primarily responsible for the failures by both DHS and other federal law-enforcement agencies, notably the FBI, to adequately take the very real and building threat of white-nationalist terrorism seriously. The result, in fact, unleashed a plague of far-right violence that reached a high-tide mark on Jan. 6, but which has still not receded.
“This was a textbook example of what happens when you send people in with a political agenda, inadequate training, and no real effort to correct the kind of problems that showed up early,” Wyden told OPB. “This was about politics. We know that Donald Trump tried to say again and again, ‘Portland is really the problem.’ And he would never really focus on the fact that his people, were basically okaying, for example, the use of tear gas near a school in our community.”