- The mission of federal agents in Portland sent to respond to ongoing unrest in the city resembles a US military operation in a foreign country.
- The agents have been seen wearing military-style attire and are part of a mission that’s been dubbed “Operation Diligent Valor.”
- The Pentagon, members of Congress, local leaders, former US military officials, historians, and legal experts have all expressed serious concern about the military uniforms and tactics of the federal agents in Portland.
- President Donald Trump has signalled he plans to send federal agents to other major US cities, raising alarm bells and prompting pushback among mayors across the country.
The Trump administration’s deployment of federal agents in Portland bears a striking resemblance to US military operations abroad.
The federal officers are in the Oregon city as part of a mission dubbed “Operation Diligent Valor” – a designation akin to those given to US military operations such as the ongoing fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, which is known as “Operation Inherent Resolve.”
The agents linked to this mission may be those responsible for dubious arrests of protesters that have raised alarm bells in Washington and beyond, Politico reported.
Federal officers in Portland have been seen wearing military camouflage fatigues that say “police” but don’t appear to have any other insignia revealing what agency they come from, and they have reportedly been driving around downtown Portland in unmarked vans, abruptly arresting some protesters without explanation.
The agents involved in these controversial arrests appear to be members of a “Rapid Deployment Force” that is part of the Department of Homeland Security-led operation involving 114 officers overall, according to Politico, which reviewed a court filing with details of the federal response in Portland. Some of the officers are also with the US Marshals Service, an agency within the Justice Department.
“In response to the increasingly violent attacks, on the morning of July 4th, the DHS Rapid Deployment Force implemented tactics intended to positively identify and arrest serious offenders for crimes such as assault, while protecting the rights of individuals engaged in protected free speech activity,” Federal Protective Service northwest regional director Gabriel Russell said in a court declaration.
‘They are deploying paramilitary forces with no identification’
The tactics of the federal agents in Portland, and their ongoing presence in the city, has raised alarm bells in Washington and beyond.
Oregon Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, who are both Democrats, have decried the federal agents in Portland as a “paramilitary” force.
Merkley last week said the Justice Department and Homeland Security are “engaged in acts that are horrific and outrageous in our constitutional democratic republic.”
“First, they are deploying paramilitary forces with no identification indicating who they are or who they work for. Second, these agents are snatching people off the street with no underlying justification. Both of these acts are profound offences against Americans,” Merkley said, demanding that the federal officers be removed “immediately” while calling for “full investigations by the Inspectors General of these departments.”
“Oregonians’ demand for answers about this occupying army and its paramilitary assaults in Portland at the direction of Donald Trump and [acting Homeland Security chief] Chad Wolf cannot be stonewalled,” Wyden said.
Authoritarian governments, not democratic republics, send unmarked authorities after protesters. These Trump/Barr tactics designed to eliminate any accountability are absolutely unacceptable in America, and must end. https://t.co/PE4YfZ9Vqd
— Senator Jeff Merkley (@SenJeffMerkley) July 16, 2020
Meanwhile, retired US Army Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling raised serious concerns about the military-style garb of the federal agents in Portland, and their apparent lack of identifying insignia. Hertling helped build a police force in Iraq, and in the process explicitly avoided dressing them in camouflage uniforms so they could be distinguished from US forces.
“Camo should be saved for when you’re trying to blend in or hide, not when you’re patrolling the streets on foot or in cars,” Hertling wrote in a Washington Post op-ed.
Similarly, a Pentagon spokesperson on Tuesday said Defence Secretary Mark Esper has expressed unease to the rest of the Trump administration about the Army-style uniforms used by law enforcement in Portland.
“We saw this take place back in June, when there were some law enforcement that wore uniforms that make them appear military,” Defence Department spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said, referencing the George Floyd protests throughout the country earlier this year.
“The secretary has a expressed a concern of this within the administration, that we want a system where people can tell the difference,” he added.
Local leaders have likened the behaviour of federal agents in Portland to that of secret police operating under an authoritarian regime.
“The Trump administration needs to stop playing politics with people’s lives,” Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, told NPR’s Michel Martin. “We don’t have a secret police in this country. This is not a dictatorship. And Trump needs to get his officers off the streets.”
Both Brown and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, also a Democrat, want the federal agents out of the city.
“Keep your troops in your own buildings, or have them leave our city,” Wheeler said at a Friday press conference. “It is an absolute abuse of federal law enforcement officials.”
The ACLU and the attorney general of Oregon have both filed lawsuits against the federal government regarding the agents in Portland, describing their activities in the city as “unconstitutional.”
Tonight I spoke with @donlemon about why I'm suing the President over his deployment of federal troops to Portland. The answer is simple: it's unconstitutional it's my job to ensure the safety and rights of our citizens who are protesting police brutality and racial injustice. pic.twitter.com/cdotPMyVnP
— Ellen Rosenblum (@EllenRosenblum) July 21, 2020
‘One of the worst offences against our democracy in American history’
Historians and legal experts have expressed grave concern about the presence of federal officers in Portland, especially given Trump has signalled plans to send agents to other major US cities.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a New York University historian and expert on authoritarianism and fascism, in a tweet described the recent developments in Portland as “right-wing authoritarianism in action,” pointing to the deployment of unidentified federal police in Washington, DC, last month as a “trial” for what was to come.
“The unmarked men of the recent DC military occupation were a trial for expanded use,” Ben-Ghiat warned, adding that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “uses similar methods to kidnap people seen as enemies, as did Cold War military juntas.”
Fox News judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano on Monday excoriated the federal government for sending agents to Portland against the wishes of local leaders, decrying the move as “not only unlawful and unconstitutional, it’s just plain wrong.”
“Sending armed, untrained police into the streets wearing fatigues without the knowledge or consent of the local police actually caused more violence,” Napolitano continued.
Steve Vladeck, a professor of law at the University of Texas School of Law, in a recent blog post for Lawfare said there’s “definitely reason to be alarmed about what’s going on in Portland” and “something more than just unseemly about camouflaged officers who refuse to identify themselves or their employer purporting to conduct arrests on the streets of American cities,” even if the federal agents are technically in compliance with relevant statutes.
The presence of federal agents dressed in Army uniforms troubled retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, who served as NATO’s former supreme allied commander in Europe. “Now America has secret police?,” he tweeted Tuesday. “Deployed against the wishes of local government! No names, no badges, look like military! One of the worst offences against our democracy in American history. Please, America, turn this back.”
Over the course of a summer in which numerous US cities have seen mass demonstrations against racism and police brutality, catalyzed by the brutal death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, Portland has experienced among the most sustained protests in the country. While the protests have involved clashes with law enforcement and vandalism, they have largely been peaceful.
The protests have evolved into a broader rebuke of President Donald Trump, who has often attacked the demonstrations as the president increasingly stokes culture wars in what many observers see as an effort to save his floundering reelection campaign.
The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Insider.
David Choi contributed reporting.