Homeland Security Head Defends Federal Presence at Protests

This screenshot shows Acting Homeland Security Director Chad Wolf testifying Thursday before the Senate’s Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs. (Courthouse News image)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Turning the tables on those who have protested federal involvement in recent civil protests, the acting director of the Department of Homeland Security told Senate lawmakers on Thursday that municipal interference put lives in jeopardy.

Chad Wolf, who is the administration’s fifth Homeland Security secretary in under four years, opened his statement by recounting what he described as a sustained attack by “violent criminals, opportunists and anarchists” on the federal courthouse in Portland, Oregon.

“It’s been suggested that our law enforcement officers should not be in Portland if not invited by state or local officials,” Wolf said. “And while our preference is always to partner with local and state law enforcement, enforcing federal law is not by invitation.”

For more than 60 days, demonstrations have continued to engulf Portland in response to the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

Wolf noted Thursday that Federal Protective Service agents first deployed in early July to defend the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse in Portland have made 99 total arrests in the last month.

While Homeland Security has named the installment of officers “Operation Diligent Valor,” their reputation for shooting pepper balls, mace and other “less lethal” projectiles into demonstrating crowds has drawn the ire of civil liberties groups as well as some local authorities.

Oregon Governor Kate Brown ordered federal reinforcements last week to go home, and similar tensions have been visible in other cities where Homeland Security has deployed its agents, including Chicago, Minneapolis and Washington, D.C..

At the courthouse in Portland, where protests have continued without police intervention, Oregon state troopers replaced federal agents behind fences guarding the building. President Donald Trump meanwhile has tweeted officers will remain in place until “local police complete cleanup of Anarchists and Agitators!”

Wolf recounted Thursday how his agents were met with the cold shoulder upon arriving in Portland, claiming that the Oregon State Police refused initially to patrol local parks adjacent to the federal courthouse that protesters had been using as a staging ground for attacks. Wolf also said Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler issued a directive on July 17 that restricted federal agencies from accessing the city’s emergency operations center.

“To put simply, DHS and DOJ officers, law enforcement officers, civil law enforcement officers, were abandoned due to dangerous policies by local officials,” Wolf said. “The cooperation and assistance our federal officers receive in any other city around the country did not exist in Portland.”

Senator Kamala Harris, a California Democrat, asked Wolf to detail Homeland Security’s protocol for informing officers of court rulings that directly impact their operations — specifically noting a District Court order barring federal police from assaulting or arresting journalists. Wolf said the agency informed Portland officers of the ruling, together with the Justice Department and its Office of General Counsel, and provided additional training. 

Harris in turn pressed Wolf about why then a California woman who attended a protest next day was shot near her heart with rubber munition at point-blank range, though she was wearing a green hat to identify her as a legal observer. Asked if the officer had been reprimanded, Wolf said he was unaware of the incident and that Homeland Security officers do not use rubber bullets.

“You have not been informed of this in any matter, even through the news?” Harris said.

“Not of that specific one,” Wolf said. “And again, DHS law enforcement officers do not use that type of less-than-lethal munitions.”

Testifying Thursday before the Senate, Acting Homeland Security Director Chad Wolf displays images of the uniforms of different departments within his agency. (Courthouse News image)

Wolf said his agency does not break up peaceful protests and said there was no validity to claims officers were wearing unmarked uniforms. Alongside a poster of various different federal law enforcement agency uniforms, Wolf explained that each of Homeland Securit’s nine departments wears a separate, clearly identifiable uniforms, though nametags have been removed to prevent doxing, or public distribution of those officers’ personal information.

“Not only their personal information is put out on Twitter or social media, but individuals are showing up at their homes and their families are being identified,” Wolf said. “So what we did is pulled off their name tags. ‘John Smith,’ we pulled that off, but we did put a unique identifier of numbers and letters on their uniforms so we could keep track of them, but their name is not specifically on there.”

Wolf also refuted a New York Times report that noted DHS employees did not have specific training to control crowds or riots, saying the agents were “trained specifically for this mission.” Wolf also denied reports of federal agents grabbing individuals in unmarked vehicles, saying the agency uses both identifiable and unidentified federal vehicles.

“What we try and do is deescalate the situation, so as an individual is throwing a Molotov cocktail at the federal courthouse, they then disappear into a group of 500 to 1,000 or 2,000 individuals,” Wolf said. “What we don’t do is try go into the middle of that group. … What we try and do is to keep track of that individual and then begin to question that individual, or arrest that individual when he breaks away from a group, so it de-escalates the situation.” 

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