On the same day a violent mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, the Department of Homeland Security received a damning internal report about its intelligence operations targeting racial justice protesters in Portland last summer.
It outlines how senior leadership pushed unfounded conspiracies about antifascists, encouraged staff to violate constitutional rights, and made spurious connections between protesters who engaged in criminal activity.
The report is an internal review focused on the agency’s Office of Intelligence & Analysis. It shows political appointees at DHS pressured career analysts to further the Trump administration’s political agenda. The report, made available Friday by U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D- Oregon, found that in addition to attempting to politicize intelligence, senior DHS leaders pressured subordinates to illegally search phones. Open source intelligence collectors, who analyze intelligence pulled from publicly available sources, also created dossiers on protesters and journalists, despite those people having no clear connections to domestic terrorism or homeland security concerns.
“The report documents shocking, coordinated efforts by our government to abuse its power and to invade liberty in violation of the Constitution,” said Lisa Hay, Oregon’s federal public defender whose office represents protesters charged by the U.S. Justice Department. “In Portland, we were concerned that the government unconstitutionally collected information, including through the illegal search of protestors’ cellphones last summer. This report confirms that was their intent.”
The heavily redacted 76-page internal review, specifically examined open source collection and other intelligence operations in Portland between May 24, 2020 and Aug. 4, 2020.
For more than a month last summer, hundreds of federal law enforcement officers from multiple agencies deployed to Portland in response to protests. Few of the officers had been trained in crowd control and the nightly violence became a recurring topic for former President Donald Trump’s flagging reelection campaign.
The internal review shows the Department of Homeland Security’s intelligence operations in Portland were heavily politicized by department leadership, lacked clear guidance, and appears to have pushed constitutional boundaries.
The report shows DHS senior leaders’ attempts at the time to connect the racial justice protests to a centrally organized effort by antifa to commit violence against government institutions — a shocking admission of organizational overreach.
“[REDACTED NAME] did make other attempts to controvert the collection-analysis process,” the report states. It goes on to criticize how leadership pushed staffers to describe protests as “Violent Antifa Anarchist Inspired,” or VAAI, actions.
Despite those efforts and Trump administration claims, the report says DHS intelligence analysts were unable to prove an ideological conspiracy.
“This may have made sense to [REDACTED NAME] based on his own beliefs but (the Office of Intelligence and Analysis) did not have collections evidence to show it,” the report states.
While the report says there was no direct pressure to change intelligence, at least one analyst paints a much starker picture.
“You could see where this VAAI definition was coming from a mile away,” the analyst is quoted in the report. “He got tired of [REDACTED] telling him they did not have the reporting and he was convinced it was ANTIFA so he was going to fix the problem by changing what the collectors were reporting.”
An email was sent to DHS senior leaders “instructing them that henceforth, the violent opportunists in Portland were to be reported as VAAI, unless the intel ‘show[ed]…something different.”
Throughout the federal deployment to Portland, officers from the Federal Protective Services requested assistance from the Department of Homeland Security’s Homeland Identities Targeting and Exploitation Center to search protesters’ cellphones. That team found the searches were illegal, and resisted pressure from senior Homeland Security leaders to assist FPS.
“These requirements generally translate into the necessity for having a warrant and sending a written request to (Office of Intelligence and Analysis) for assistance. FPS provided neither,” the report found, adding that senior leaders continued to pressure the exploitation center to ignore legal barriers.
Intelligence leaders from Homeland Security’s Field Operations Directorate were told to offer the Portland Police Bureau assistance in searching phones. According to the report, the bureau never accepted the offer, which became moot after the Portland City Council passed a resolution barring PPB from cooperating with federal law enforcement.
Intelligence analysts with the Department of Homeland Security’s Current and Emerging Threats Center were ordered to compile dossiers, known as “Operational Background Reports,” or OBRs, on arrested protesters in an attempt to prove links between the protesters, or that there was a central leadership structure. Internally, Homeland Security employees called these reports “baseball cards.”
The program illuminates how federal officials ignored the underlying causes of last summer’s unrest, and betrays a fundamental failure to understand the dynamics on the ground.
“Convinced that there was a coordinated effort to commit violence, [REDACTED NAME] intended purpose was to use the OBRs to confirm his suspicions that a link existed amongst the arrestees and identify a single individual or group that was masterminding the attacks,” the report said.
Some Homeland Security staff spoke up over concerns that it was likely illegal to collect massive amounts of information on U.S. citizens with no connection to domestic terrorism. Those concerns were dismissed. Some staff refused to work on the reports.
“(Current and Emerging Threats Center) leadership sternly rebuffed the staff during a July 16, 2020 branch call admonishing staff that justification for completing the intrusive background searches was not necessary,” the report said.
In a blatant disregard for DHS policies and civil liberties, leadership dismissed staff concerns.
“Requests from leadership are justification enough,” leadership told their staff according to the report. “Don’t need specifics…if he gives tasking it’s clear/legal to do.”
For more than a year, Wyden and other members of the Oregon Congressional Delegation have pressed DHS and the Justice Department for details about the Trump administration’s response to Portland’s protests.
Wyden said under Trump, DHS officials sought to “politicize and inflame the conflict in Portland.” Oregon’s senior senator called for an overhaul of the agency’s intelligence office.
“Independent investigators confirmed that DHS intelligence officials lacked basic knowledge of their authority, what constituted real threats, and when it was appropriate to investigate Americans who were suspected of no crime at all,” Wyden said in a statement Friday. “It documents how untrained analysts investigated journalists. And there is more information that I believe the public deserves to know, but has been redacted. I’ll continue working to make those items public.”