Declassified Report Shows DHS Tried To Fulfill Trump’s Antifa Fantasies When Handling Portland Protests
from the fake-it-until-you-can-maybe-make-something-of-it dept
After weeks of protests erupted following the murder of unarmed black man George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, President Trump made it clear he felt the protesters were the real problem. As he stated immediately following his election, he was here to end the “dangerous anti-police atmosphere in America.” He followed through with this threat by scrambling federal agencies to Portland, Oregon to quell dissent.
The DHS and its posse rolled into Portland, Oregon in mid-July and immediately made its presence known by dragging protesters into unmarked vehicles in order to subject them to interrogations in unknown buildings, hoping to put as much distance between protesters and their rights as possible.
Then they began assaulting protesters, journalists, legal observers, and others on the scene of nightly protests. This resulted in lawsuits. And the lawsuits resulted in federal court orders forbidding federal officers from assaulting journalists and legal observers. This did not stop the assaults. More court orders followed, handing down sanctions for the continued violations of the original court orders.
Now, thanks to Ron Wyden and his release of two previously redacted reports, we have more evidence of the DHS’s overreach and its abuse of its powers to convert its direction to protect federal buildings into a witch hunt for Trump’s favorite protest boogeyman, Antifa.
Much like ICE chose to falsify reports and engage in questionable enforcement efforts in order to stroke Trump’s ego and indulge his bigoted fantasies about America being overrun by dangerous immigrants, DHS chose to focus its energy on making Trump’s Antifa conspiracy theory become reality. (That Donald Trump considered a group that declares itself to be “anti-fascist” to be the biggest concern during anti-police violence protests says a few things about Trump’s desires and interests, none of them good.)
The two reports [PDF] (one from DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis [I&A] and one from the DHS itself) show DHS agents and officers were pushed by certain officials to engage in unfettered surveillance of protesters in hopes of finding a bunch of Antifa stuff that might make President Trump look a little less full of shit.
The I&A report is shorter, drier, and doesn’t really delve into the details that underlie its findings that the Portland operation was, to paraphrase, a mismanaged clusterfuck. Training was inadequate. Agents and officers weren’t sure which offices they were supposed to report to. On the whole, though, this report is largely exonerative, showing the DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis largely believes that — training and chain of command issues notwithstanding — the DHS and its attached personnel did nothing wrong.
I&A did not produce “targeting packages” identifying lawful protestors for additional collection or analysis. I&A produced working materials, including “Baseball Cards,” a colloquial term for an “Operational Background Report,” for individuals arrested and/or charged for violent acts, either related to attacks on critical infrastructure, law enforcement resources, or for potential acts of domestic terrorism. These operational background reports included past criminal history, travel history, derogatory information from DHS or Intelligence Community holdings, as well as any publicly available social media potentially relevant to identifying indicators of domestic violent extremism or coordination among violent actors.
Sounds great. But it simply isn’t true. Either field officers were lying to I&A officials or the I&A is lying to its Congressional oversight and the general public. The second report contradicts pretty much everything in this statement from the I&A.
The second report notes the DHS’s intelligence collection services began to be overwhelmed in 2017, as the public tide turned against ICE as it morphed into an aggressive, often rogue agency following President Trump’s continuous agitation against the (imaginary) threat of a never-ending flow of criminals across the Mexican border. DHS began gathering mountains of open source information linked to potential threats (no matter how spurious, sarcastic, or stupid) to ICE and its personnel. Its workload quadrupled but its personnel did not.
That bottleneck led to the increased demands of collections in Portland being handled with nearly no direct or indirect oversight. In addition, certain DHS officials (mainly acting DHS Under Secretary Brian Murphy) pushed personnel to do questionable things, like build dossiers on peaceful protesters and link as much protest-adjacent criminal activity to Trump’s preferred villain, utilizing the term “Violent Antifa Anarchists Inspired” (VAAI), replacing the far more neutral designation, “violent opportunists.” This last move was directly mandated by Acting Secretary Brian Murphy.
The DHS arrived in Portland under-equipped and without much specific guidance outside of shutting down protests as quickly as possible. That resulted in things one might expect from a small town police department responding to an unexpected crisis rather than a federal agency that has received hundreds of billions in funding every year for the past two decades.
Adding further aggravation to an already incredibly strained system, OSCO [Office of the Chief Security Officer] was required to surge to respond to crisis events that arose as a result of the George Floyd killing. New hires, who had barely received any form of training, were immediately activated to assist in any capacity possible. A scrambled purchase for laptops was made through acquisitions from Best Buy, and on a Saturday evening, the new hires were asked to meet in the DHS Nebraska Avenue Complex (NAC) parking lot so they could pick up a “collection” laptop. The OSCO branch chief, via Microsoft Teams Chat, then walked them through downloading the necessary software and visiting social media sites to collect information.
Hundred of billions in funding and this is what people who actually cared about doing the job right ran into:
One collector attended an OSINT conference using her own funds to buy her ticket. At the conference there were tabletop exercises and competitions. The collector opined that “many of the [OSCO] collectors, even the senior ones, were clueless about the rest of the field or social media.”
Here’s how that played out in Portland:
A major deficiency in the deployment of OSCO personnel to Portland was the deployment of inexperienced, inadequately trained junior collectors without any sort of pre-deployment training offered to help address their underdeveloped understanding of true threats, First Amendment protections, collection requirements, and national intelligence and DHS departmental mission sets. Instead, the Portland team only received a quick counterintelligence briefing and a gas mask with rudimentary instruction just a few hours before they deployed. The Portland team received only a 24-hour notice that they would deploy. […] Regarding his training, this collector stated, “aside from the cookbook and a couple of emails about the threats to look for, I was not given guidance about what to collect before I began collecting.”
If you don’t train adequately, or if you simply don’t care what happens to people you think are “anti-police” (an attitude apparently encouraged by Under Secretary Murphy), you end up with more rights violations than actionable intelligence.
Another example indicative of poor training was identification of sources. Many junior collectors would find a new source and use the information without properly considering the source’s historical activities, such as past comments made, other violent or crime-related interests, links to nefarious groups, previous violent actions or incitements to violence. Instead, it was a “one and done” type of review – if the source made one threatening statement like “kill cops,” that statement sufficed for a report without regard to that subject’s “prior anti-law enforcement sentiment” or propensity to intentionally incite violence or commit a violent act.
I mean, it would be comical if it weren’t for all the tax dollars and steamrolling of civil liberties. There are several ways you can make intelligence gathering less likely to obtain usable intelligence and one of those ways is to reward people for turning in whatever they turn up, no matter how useless the “intelligence” is.
Every report became a priority since all materials that OSCO collectors were reviewing and collecting were supposed to be threat-based. This pressure translated to a high operations tempo to ensure that these perceived threats were timely reported. The pressure was put not only on the collectors, but also on the SDOs [Suspension and Disbarment Officials] to speed up their reviews and publish OSIRs [Open Source Intelligence Report]. This, coupled with the fact that the OSCO collectors were primarily graded on the average number of OSIRs they produced a month, pushed limited review of the threats they collected.
Civil liberties on the line and an under-trained, under-manned deployment turned the DHS’s intelligence wing into Civil Rights Violation Central. Peep this level of professionalism:
A former content manager stated that collectors were like a “bunch of 6th graders chasing a soccer ball – everyone wanted to be the collector who found the golden egg or found the threat.”
It was “Office Space,” but with tax dollars and rights at stake.
The CETC [Current and Emerging Threats Center] Director was the “king of the drive-by direction,” dropping by someone’s desk and asking them to do something without putting it in writing.
The end goal: plausible deniability for someone paid to take responsibility for their own actions as well as those of the people they oversee.
[T]he Director would often say that he did not direct that task and ask, “where’s the e-mail” that told them to take that action, or that they had misinterpreted his instructions.
Things were already going badly. DHS officials continued to make things worse.
At best, this practice translated to wasted effort on unclear direction that changed through shift pass downs; at worst, it was construed as an attempt by leadership to have deniability for any inappropriate, accidental or intentional activities. This practice caused distrust and confusion among employees regarding task assignment and appropriateness.
On top of this disaster was Acting Under Secretary Brian Murphy, who was openly hostile towards any form of accountability or oversight.
“He told the mission managers they did not have to go through G4 (visa approval) review, and that the G4 was there as a resource, but not a necessary step, so it was the fault of the mission managers if the review process takes time.” When ILD [Intelligence Law Division] attorneys would attend I&A meetings with Mr. Murphy and the mission center directors, Mr. Murphy would limit the attorneys’ ability to provide legal guidance, making statements such as “I did not ask for your opinion.”
Murphy pushed for more collections, less oversight, and unilaterally decided to unmask US persons caught in the DHS’s new dragnet, despite acknowledging he was bound by limitations handed down by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).
And those violations expanded in Portland, where the contradiction with the I&A report appears, headed by Under Secretary Brian Murphy’s insistence that dossiers on protesters shouldn’t be limited to people suspected of coordinating violent attacks on cops, DHS officers, or government buildings. Instead, Murphy ordered the compilation of “Baseball Cards” (the intelligence community slang term for “Operational Background Reports” [OBRs]) on anyone involved or near an attack on law enforcement officers.
Fortunately, most of those involved in the Portland operation weren’t on board with Murphy’s willingness to violate rights to pursue Antifa-related conspiracy theories.
Initial drafts of OBRs completed by OSCO personnel included friends and followers of the subjects, as well as their interests. Just the collection of names of USPERs found on social media profiles could be a violation of those individuals’ privacy rights under the IO guidelines if the appropriate reasonable belief standard and mission need are not satisfied. Fortunately, early drafts of OBRs removed this information and replaced it with “friends list available upon request.” However, the subject’s interests and some of their First Amendment speech activity (posts) were still collected.
Some CETC staff refused to continue to compile these dossiers. They were informed by CETC management that no justification for violating rights was needed. In essence, they were ordered to follow orders. Some still refused. Others took their concerns to DHS attorneys. The Intelligence Law Division raised these concerns with Murphy but were ignored. The legal division also questioned the unilateral decision to declare OBR subjects Antifa-related. These questions were also ignored. Surveillance of US persons engaged in First Amendment protected activities continued.
There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence and sworn statements to DHS oversight that Murphy encouraged unfettered surveillance of Portland residents. Unfortunately, there’s not much physical evidence. Plenty of personnel resisted Murphy’s orders. Some even tried to undercut his efforts by demonstrating the futility and abusiveness of his surveillance orders, working with other DHS components to show there was no demonstrable link between subjects of OBRs. But the true number of unconstitutional dossiers remains a mystery because the DHS deleted it.
The total number of OBRs created could not be assessed. Witnesses were unsure of the total number of OBRs created. Some stated that only 20 were produced, others stated they’d only seen 20-25, and still others claimed there were about 50-100 created. Our team was provided with a total of 43 though it is apparent that there are more OBRs than what was provided. Not all the OBRs could be recovered, as they were deleted from the share drive used to create and edit them.
The Acting Under Secretary ran a garbage mission. And he ran it off the rails. He ran it so poorly and with such immediately apparent antipathy towards the targets of Trump’s rage, DHS employees did everything they could to shut down his overreach and ignore his mandates.
In one case, CETC prepared an OBR on an USPER whose social media profile clearly identified the individual as a journalist. This individual was arrested for flying a drone in a national defense airspace. The arrestee’s purpose for flying this drone was not identified in the OBR – it may have been for the purpose of capturing photographs of the ongoing activities or for some other reason – and as such it is unclear whether this OBR was a valid exercise of I&A’s legal authority. In another instance, an I&A employee requested a report on another journalist – the same journalist at issue in one of the leaked OSIRs – and included instructions to add “a list of any [of his] associates or groups.” The journalist in that case had not been arrested for anything, but had posted unclassified DHS internal correspondence to his social media page. In addition to poor optics, completing an OBR on this journalist without a clear connection to a national or departmental mission arguably would have failed to satisfy the reasonable belief standard. Fortunately, a collector recognized that the subject was a journalist, alerted the requestor to this fact, and declined to proceed with that particular search.
The report is a disheartening, brutal, detailed indictment of the DHS and its actions under Trump and his appointed leaders. And I encourage you to read it in its entirety. I realize this post is now comparable to so many classics of American literature (not in terms of writing quality but because it is exceedingly long) but hopefully it conveys just how easily White House rhetoric can turn government agencies into en masse rights violators. We may be the Land of the Free, but a lot of that freedom requires the government to respect the limits it has imposed on itself. That just isn’t happening.