Federal agents use crowd control munitions to disperse Black Lives Matter protesters at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse on July 20 in Portland, Ore.

Federal agents use crowd control munitions to disperse Black Lives Matter protesters at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse on July 20 in Portland, Ore. Noah Berger / AP

DHS’ Portland Stunt Could Undermine the Agency For Years, Former Officials Warn

"This is well outside the bounds of what the intent is of the federal protective services' mission," one says.

The events in Portland this weekend, in which unmarked federal officers arrested protestors off the street, could hurt the Department of Homeland Security’s ability to coordinate with local police forces for years to come. That, in turn, could affect everything from disaster response to preventing terrorism, two former senior DHS officials told Defense One on Monday.

Last weekend, DHS leaders dispatched officers from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Coast Guard, the U.S. Marshals Service, and other federal agencies to guard federal facilities and monuments in Oregon's largest city. The deployment is part of a Trump administration effort to expand the presence of federal officers in cities, in keeping with an executive order that President Donald Trump signed on June 26, establishing the DHS Protecting American Communities Task Force, or PACT.

But in Portland, the newly arrived federal officials didn’t just protect the buildings. They interpreted their authority as sufficient to move into the city's streets and detain protesters on the grounds that they might have damaged buildings.

The mayor of Portland has demanded the federal forces leave, calling their presence “neither wanted nor is it helpful.”

Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf refused.

“I offered @DHSgov support to help locally address the situation that’s going on in Portland, and their only response was: please pack up and go home. That’s just not going to happen on my watch.” pic.twitter.com/BW8UdbNZ9c

— Acting Secretary Chad Wolf (@DHS_Wolf) July 17, 2020

The breakdown in the relationship between DHS and local authorities in Portland portends poorly for DHS’s ability to perform a variety of important functions alongside local authorities in emergency circumstances, according to two former DHS officials who worked in the Trump administration and previous ones. The former officials said that many CBP officers with whom they had been in contact over the last two days were deeply concerned about border-patrol officers operating so far outside of their jurisdiction. 

There is precedent for federal officers deploying to U.S. cities, including border patrol agents well more than 100 miles from the border, such as in Portland. In disaster situations, it’s not uncommon for DHS to send what one former official called a “surge force” of volunteers who receive 48 hours of training and then work side-by-side with local authorities in disaster zones. CBP officers are commonly among groups dispatched for such jobs, but their role is primarily rescue operations, said the former official. Those CBP personnel would be very different from the tactical units DHS deployed to Portland this weekend. Both former officials said those units aren’t trained for civilian crowd control. They’re paramilitary units that typically face off against drug cartels, not groups like Moms Against Police Brutality.

“This is well outside the bounds of what the intent is of the federal protective services' mission and most people [with whom they had spoken at DHS] seem to think that DHS is being used as part of the president’s political" organization, said the first former official. “Protecting a building is different from policing the people. If the local government doesn’t want to partner with you, that’s the point where a wise person takes a step back.”

A breakdown in relations between DHS and local authorities would have consequences well past the current crisis, the former officials said, and perhaps beyond the end of the Trump administration. 

“You are going to see the city of Miami make a conscious choice not to bring in a heavy DHS presence” if a hurricane hits, said the second former official. Local authorities may not know whether the federal personnel they are bringing in are there to carry out rescue-and-relief work or to execute some political agenda.

“Are you going to get first responders or something else?" the former official said. "State and locals are going to be under a lot of pressure not to invite DHS in.”

On July 19, DHS’s Wolf noted that Portland authorities had evicted DHS from the local emergency operations center, a move the acting secretary called “dangerous.”

The first former official, who blamed Wolf for the eviction, agreed that excluding federal forces from disaster relief operations could be dangerous — particularly during a natural disaster such as an earthquake due to the nearby Portland Hills Fault

“The Department of Homeland Security has from time to time run drills and tabletop exercises to figure out: what would the response look like? In all scenarios, you’re calling in the military to deal with the worst disaster in our lifetimes," the former official said. "What if the big one happens and you don’t have anybody in the operations center? It’s one thing if they keep you out for a few days. It’s a whole different thing if this becomes a standing thing for several months or several years….You don’t know who to call in the emergency.” 

The first former official said that the reason to have DHS personnel co-located with local authorities in operational centers is precisely because “during an emergency, you don’t want to waste time trying to figure out who to call, or whose function it is to do what.” 

Information sharing between local authorities and DHS personnel could also suffer.

“We have, for years, tried to employ a sort of fusion model where we have DHS out in the community working with local law enforcement, FBI," etc., said the second former official. “What we’ve done is put these people there to coordinate, to take information and to push information. That’s some of the way we have tried to solve our 9-11 gap.” 

Eroding the trust between DHS and local law enforcement would be “one of the worst things you could do” in terms of vital intelligence sharing for coordinated counterterrorism, said the second former official. That could result in a situation “where data might not be deemed shared the way it should be...That’s how we know how someone shouldn't be on a plane. When local authorities push those DHS workers out of operations centers, or cut them off from information because there’s a question about what DHS sees as its role, how it will use information it obtains against local communities, that “creates a huge vulnerability in the way we have organized the entire national security apparatus to coordinate among state and locals and the federal government.”

If there is any good news to be found in the weekend’s events, the second former official said, it is that the Portland model likely could not be reproduced across the country.

“The scale is not there,” the former official said.

But a handful of cities could well see similar deployments. On Monday, Trump threatened that Chicago could be next.