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Homeland Security Leaders on Defensive Amid Calls to Withdraw From Portland

2020-07-22 04:58:38

WASHINGTON — Senior officials with the Department of Homeland Security addressed the increased presence of federal agents in Portland, Ore., in a press briefing for the first time on Tuesday, defending the tactics of the agents who have been widely criticized for escalating an already tense conflict with protesters.

They said agents of the department would remain in the city until the unrest had subsided.

Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of homeland security, cast blame for the unrest on Portland politicians who have publicly pleaded that he remove the agents from the city. But Mr. Wolf said the crackdown — which has included personnel from the U.S. Marshals and tactical agents from Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement in addition to the Federal Protective Service, which was already stationed in Portland — was specific to the Pacific Northwest city, distancing his department from President Trump’s commitment this week to send agents to other major cities, from Oakland to New York.

“Violent anarchists in Portland versus normal city criminal activity behavior by gangs and criminal element, those are two different things,” Mr. Wolf said, adding that the department had recorded 43 arrests in the protests. “What we have in Portland is very different than what we see in other cities.”

The Trump administration’s plan, revealed on Monday, to send 150 Homeland Security Investigations special agents to Chicago for 60 days is separate from the deployment of camouflage-wearing tactical agents in Portland, but the deployment of federal agents to another major city has stoked concern among local mayors and governors that the efforts are making the unrest worse.

Mayors throughout the United States have called on the administration to pull back the agents, and even Tom Ridge, the first homeland security secretary, criticized the deployment on Tuesday.

“It would be a cold day in hell before I would consent to a unilateral, uninvited intervention into one of my cities,” Mr. Ridge said in an interview with Sirius XM radio. “And I wish the president would take a more collaborative approach toward fighting this lawlessness than the unilateral approach he’s taken.”

In the rare news conference, Mr. Wolf said he called the mayor of Portland and the governor of Oregon this month to work with them to protect the federal courthouse downtown but was met with resistance. He accused the officials of turning the conversation “into a political issue.”

“We stand ready,” Mr. Wolf said. “I’m ready to pull my officers out of there if the violence stops. Portland is unique. There’s no other city like it right now where we see this violence at federal courthouses.”

But while the homeland security officials said the deployment of tactical agents who have frequently deployed tear gas and at times forced protesters into unmarked vehicles was needed to combat “violent criminals,” some of the demonstrators included mothers locked in arms outside the courthouse. While some in the crowd have thrown rocks and bottles at federal officers, others have demonstrated peacefully.

The governor, the mayor and the protesters have all said that the homeland security agents and U.S. Marshals had only increased tensions in the city.

“We didn’t ask for these troops in our city. We don’t want these troops in our city, and the tactics they’re using are very un-American,” Mayor Ted Wheeler said, adding that the agents were forcing demonstrators into vans without probable cause. “There’s some really serious constitutional issues here.”

Mr. Wheeler added that many of those detained had not been charged, but rather released after questioning. “We have people who have come back and said I feel like I was kidnapped.”

While the department deployed teams of air marshals, Coast Guard officials, and tactical agents from Customs and Border Protection and ICE to various cities after Mr. Trump signed an executive order to protect monuments, statues and federal property, Mr. Wolf said the teams are in no city besides Portland at this time. Those teams continue to be ready for deployment.

Citing a law codified by the Homeland Security Act of 2002 that allows the secretary to protect federal property, Mr. Wolf also defended agents who have been accused of placing protesters in unmarked vans without telling them where they are going.

But the law Mr. Wolf cited, 40 U.S. Code 1315, says homeland security officials have the right to “conduct investigations” away from federal property. Pressed about the level of probable cause needed to detain someone away from the courthouse in Portland, Mr. Wolf referred to Richard Cline, the deputy director of the Federal Protective Service. Mr. Cline described the detaining of one individual, whom he did not name, who was put into a van so agents could bring him to a safe place for questioning.

The officials did not address other accounts from demonstrators of being detained, put into unmarked vehicles and not being told where they were going.

“We’re not going to allow somebody to walk up to federal property, assault a federal officer or agent and because they walk off federal property say we can’t go arrest you,” said Mark Morgan, the acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, who confirmed that federal agents were using unmarked vehicles but said it was needed to ensure their safety. He also carried with him a ballistic camouflaged vest displaying the label “POLICE” to push back on accounts that agents in Portland lacked insignia and refused to identify themselves.

But Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper has told other administration officials that he has concerns about the military-style camouflage worn by such agents in recent weeks.

Mr. Esper “has expressed a concern of this within the administration,” the chief Pentagon spokesman, Jonathan Hoffman, told reporters on Tuesday. “We want a system where people can tell the difference” between the federal agents who are patrolling streets and military troops who are not, he added.

Gil Kerlikowske, a Customs and Border Protection chief in the Obama administration, also said the department was not meeting a standard of probable cause with the detainments.

“They need the same probable cause that any police officer should have to stop somebody. It’s beyond a reasonable suspicion that this person has actually committed crime,” Mr. Kerlikowske said. “You’re not seeing that in Portland.”

Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed reporting.


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