In a dangerous authoritarian move, federal agents in camouflage and without badges are rounding up American citizens.
By Jeet Heer
Jun. 17, 2020
Donald Trump’s war on protesters is escalating, with reports emerging out of Portland, Ore., that federal law enforcement officers, wearing camouflage but without any other visible insignia, have been rounding up American citizens. On Thursday, Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) reported that “federal law enforcement officers have been using unmarked vehicles to drive around downtown Portland and detain protesters since at least July 14. Personal accounts and multiple videos posted online show the officers driving up to people, detaining individuals with no explanation of why they are being arrested, and driving off.”
OPB quotes one person who was arrested by these officers, although never charged. “I am basically tossed into the van,” Mark Pettibone told the broadcaster. “And I had my beanie pulled over my face so I couldn’t see and they held my hands over my head.” He was taken to a building that he later discovered was a federal courthouse. Only there was he read his Miranda rights, but he was never charged. After he asked for a lawyer, he was released. Videos are circulating on social media of similar detentions.
“It’s like stop and frisk meets Guantanamo Bay,” attorney Juan Chavez told OPB. He added that these detentions were not following any rules of probable cause. “It sounds more like abduction. It sounds like they’re kidnapping people off the streets.”
On the face of it, what these federal officers are doing is illegal and unconstitutional. It’s possible that they are acting under the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act, signed by Barack Obama, which legalized the detention of Americans suspected of being terrorists. If so, then the War on Terrorism has truly come home.
The Trump administration used unidentified federal officers to patrol Washington, D.C., in early June when the scale of the protests forced Trump to go into the White House bunker. Those officers turned out to be guards from the US Bureau of Prisons who had been repurposed as ad hoc praetorian guards.
Protests have been roiling Portland for over six weeks. Even prior to these protests, Portland was a site of a long-running battle between right-wing groups like the Proud Boys and left-wing activists who are usually lumped together under the antifa label. It’s possible that the antifa connection made Portland a spot of particular interest to the Trump administration, which has used the loosely organized anti-fascist groups as a scapegoat for social upheavals in the wake of police brutality.
The deployment of unidentified federal officers is particularly dangerous in a situation like that in Portland and elsewhere in America, because it could easily lead to right-wing militias’ impersonating legal authorities and kidnapping citizens. As former CIA counterintelligence analyst Aki Peritz notes, “All it takes is one of these similar-kitted out militiamen groups to start grabbing folks off the street as well, but then having their way with them, for there to be huge, possibly violent pushback for these tactics. This hurts the police, and the citizenry.” Peritz argues, “We’re quickly entering secret police territory now. DHS is becoming Trump’s Mukhābarāt” (mukhābarāt being the Arabic word for intelligence agency, used colloquially to refer, for example, to the Egyptian or Iraqi or Libyan secret police).
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf is currently in Portland. In a statement on Thursday, Wolf said, “The city of Portland has been under siege for 47 straight days by a violent mob while local political leaders refuse to restore order to protect their city. Each night, lawless anarchists destroy and desecrate property, including the federal courthouse, and attack the brave law enforcement officers protecting it.” Wolf warned, “This siege can end if state and local officials decide to take appropriate action instead of refusing to enforce the law.”
Wolf’s strident words echoed the law-and-order theme that has come to the fore in Trump’s reelection campaign. Trump himself sounded a racist variation on the theme in a Thursday White House virtual town hall when he decried the collapse of “law and order” in cities like New York and Chicago. Trump also claimed that Democrats were trying to destroy the suburbs. Announcing the rescinding of an Obama order against racial segregation in housing, Trump said, “The suburb destruction will end with us.”
There is every sign that Trump will continue to pound the drum of law and order until the election. Portland is likely a test case for a larger security crackdown that will be repeated in other cities.
Oregon Governor Kate Brown has been commendably blunt in attacking Trump’s assault on protesters. On Thursday, she tweeted:
“The President is failing to lead this nation. Now he is deploying federal officers to patrol the streets of Portland in a blatant abuse of power by the federal government.
I told Acting Secretary Wolf that the federal government should remove all federal officers from our streets. His response showed me he is on a mission to provoke confrontation for political purposes. He is putting both Oregonians and local law enforcement officers in harm’s way.”
Brown shouldn’t be the only one protesting. Congressional Democrats need to open up an immediate investigation into the use of federal law enforcement officers in Portland. Joe Biden also needs to make clear that if elected he’ll order an immediate house cleaning in all federal agencies and that any officers found to have broken the law will be punished. Moreover, if Trump is acting within the law, the Democrats need to make new rules so no future president can repeat this travesty.
* Jeet Heer is a national affairs correspondent at The Nation and the author of In Love with Art: Francoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman (2013) and Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays and Profiles (2014).