Skoog: Federal agents carpooling for climate change. In unmarked vans.

Snatching civilians and restoring faith in government: It’s a civil liberties hellscape.

Caroline Skoog

Following Attorney General William Barr’s launch of the Task Force on Violent Anti-Government Extremists on June 26, a mixed bag of federal agencies and special units have dogpiled onto the anti-protest vanguard. Living up to its opportunistic reputation, the Department of Homeland Security joined the string of warlike measures and formed the Protecting American Communities Task Force. Thousands of officers from Customs and Border Protection and the Border Patrol Tactical Unit, generally thought of as the DHS’s S.W.A.T. team, among other DHS agencies and tactical equipment, have been deployed to Portland, Seattle, Washington, D.C. and really any city with a Democratic mayor to whom the administration wants to pay a turbulent visit. 

Federal law enforcement has roved through Portland in unmarked vehicles, lacked proper insignia on their person, seized protesters off the streets and detained them away from federal properties. Protesters are being gassed, beaten with batons, shot at with rubber bullets and physically surveilled and digitally monitored by the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis. Snipers are stationed above protests. 

A DHS internal memo reads, “Moving forward, if this type of response is going to be the norm, specialized training and standardized equipment should be deployed to responding agencies.”

Local officials in Portland, including Ted Wheeler, the city’s mayor and police commissioner, have publicly urged the administration to remove federal agents from the city. The American Civil Liberties Union placed multiple lawsuits against federal agencies on counts of targeting journalists and legal observers covering ongoing protests and unidentified agents attacking medics as they aid the injured. 

We can haphazardly defend the rights of select careers. We can retweet the video of Ted Wheeler getting teargassed. We can scramble to online petitions. The administration’s actions are legal just the same. They’re given the green light by 40 U.S. Code 1315, a souvenir of the Homeland Security Act of 2002. Like the DHS secretary Chad Wolf told “Fox & Friends,” “I don’t need invitations by state mayors or state governors to do our job — we’re going to do that whether they like us there or not.” (Isn’t this the presidency that lauded state powers during a global pandemic?) Lawsuits focused on technicalities seem to pursue a conscience in the United States government that it functionally does not have.

The administration’s militant response also received a helping hand from Democrats who advanced a recent apportionment bill, stamped by the House Appropriations Committee, which scrapes an extra $50 billion in discretionary funding to the DHS. Perhaps some of that cash will go toward settling lawsuits. 

In theory, we could’ve seen this coming. We’re witnessing decades of coordinated, unbridled power in the making. Americans are getting a taste of their tax funds in action — not on the evening news depicting somewhere overseas but on their very own streets, against their own people. 

The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces coordinate with state and local law enforcement in an effort to “do it all: chase down leads, gather evidence, make arrests, provide security for special events, collect and share intelligence, and respond to threats and incidents at a moment’s notice,” according to the FBI’s website. With 200 task forces posted around the country, personnel participating from over 500 state and local agencies and 55 federal agencies, such as the DHS, the U.S. military and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, there are more agents operating beneath the FBI’s guidance — as the feds’ eyes and ears — than we are aware of. 

As new and old interagency task forces covertly take up battle stations across the country, the disparity between public and classified information magnifies. The scopic enterprise of counterterrorism dunks its fingers into a slew of bureaus and concentrates sweeping powers to incognito agencies. It’s an unmappable network of power that obscures the public’s ability to decipher the chain of command. There is no statutory charter for the FBI, and it operates at the will of the attorney general. Moreover, the very nature of intelligence agencies lays the groundwork for certain degrees of callous behavior. 

By design, intelligence agencies undermine the general public’s relationship to the State. It is common knowledge that we cannot access the complete truth. While the monstrous realities of Joint Terrorism Task Forces and secret units may go unchecked, skepticism toward our law enforcement today can easily be dismissed as “conspiracy theories” under a tinfoil hat. There are groundless conspiracy theories that exist — but sometimes, the truth is indeed stranger than fiction, and history repeats itself if you let it.

When we look at the history of the FBI and DHS, there is no clear line drawn between the units’ outrageous pasts and their alleged “protect and serve” present: the strong-arm tactics of COINTELPRO, paying confidential informants baselessly to infiltrate Muslim communities and act as agent provocateurs post-9/11, spying on Keystone XL and Standing Rock pipeline protesters and conducting investigations on Black Lives Matter activists since 2014, labeled “Black Identity Extremists” — and this is just what we’re allowed to know. 

What little we do know, however, should piss everyone off. Where are the small-government libertarians as federal forces rip people off of Portland’s sidewalks? Where were free speech warriors when U.S. Customs and Border Protection flew a Predator surveillance drone over Minneapolis? Isn’t the government literally coming to get you right now, like some of us have been obsessively planning for? 

The federal reaction to the Black Lives Matter protests in Portland starkly deviates from its response to the 41-day standoff at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which is federally owned land, in 2016. An armed far-right militia occupied the ground’s headquarters. Law enforcement negotiated with the militia’s leader, Ammon Bundy, who gained experience from his participation in the analogous 2014 Bundy Standoff. Bundy and six of his cohorts were tried for conspiracy, possession of firearms in federal facilities and depredation of government property. They were all acquitted. The contrast in the feds’ approach to de-escalating civil unrest demonstrates the deep politicization of our security institutions. 

Legally, the administration can unleash panoptic executive power against protesters. Legal but unacceptable. I don’t understand how BORTAC can arrive in Portland dressed for war and not expect a battle. Then again, with the administration’s massive emphasis on “law and order,” blitzkrieg might have been first on the agenda. 

Deploying federal agents to protests hasn’t diminished violence or property damage, but it is overwhelming the justice system with protest arrests and filling local precincts during a pandemic. 

Institutions like the FBI, DHS and other special division units with less street credit operate with bush-league oversight and clandestine motives. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Where there’s covert operation, there’s suppression of dissent, particularly when it comes from the left.

Do you have more faith in your government now than you did before?