Portland looked like a war zone that summer. Phalanxes of shady police officers fired ammunition to control the crowd as plumes of tear gas rose in the sky. Federal agents with no clearly visible ID rallied protesters and loaded them into unmarked cars on American streets. As videos spread online, it was hard to tell what was going on or how far.
The public backlash was gruesome and prompted Congress to require the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to disclose information about the operation. However, the DHS has never disclosed to the public the full extent of its Portland intelligence operations, which two former intelligence agencies said consisted of covert activities, including intercepting phone calls from protesters conducted by a task force that included federal agencies in addition to the DHS Officers who are familiar with the matter.
“Unknown stormtroopers. Unmarked cars. Kidnapping protesters and causing serious injuries in response to graffiti. These are not the acts of a democratic republic. [Department of Homeland Security’s] Actions in Portland are undermining its mission, “said House spokeswoman Nancy Pelosi tweeted Mid-July. Later that month The Washington Post reported that DHS ‘intelligence division, the Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A), had produced intelligence reports on several prominent journalists covering the protests in Portland. Members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committee wanted to know immediately what kind of intelligence they had gathered on both journalists and protesters. A Senate letter contained a suggestive admonition that the department “is required by law to keep the intelligence committees of Congress fully and currently informed of its operations”.
However, at the time of this writing, the DHS has not responded to Congress’ questions. “Notwithstanding the selective and incomplete production of documents, the committee has reason to believe that DHS and I&A are holding back responsive records of I&A activities in Portland and supporting DHS’s response to nationwide protests,” said Adam Schiff. Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee wrote in a letter to the DHS intelligence department.
This does not mean that the DHS did not respond to the public fuss. Shortly after the first inquiries from Congress, the DHS shocked the national security community by removing its senior Undersecretary of State for Intelligence, Brian Murphy. Murphy was the head of I&A, the wing of the DHS that is a member of the dilute intelligence community and has the authority to process highly classified information on security threats to the United States. Although Murphy’s removal appeared to reassure Congress, the public tale that he had been removed for the purposes of intelligence reporting on journalists found some intelligence officials dubious.
“He was not reassigned because of an unclassified program,” said a former DHS I&A senior intelligence officer who served under Murphy The nation. “That’s a convenient story, but that’s not what is going on.”
In contrast to more sensitive, secret information, the journalists’ reports were based exclusively on publicly available information. And although data protection regulations generally prevent “US persons” from being the subject of intelligence reviews, this is still not uncommon. “That kind of shit happens all the time,” said the former intelligence officer.
The early narrative became even more dubious when Murphy filed a whistleblower complaint with Congress seeking retaliation from the department. According to the complaint, the reason Murphy had been reassigned wasn’t because of what had happened in Portland, but rather a series of previous whistleblower complaints he filed for pressuring him into manipulating intelligence agencies. This is believed to have led DHS leadership to ask Murphy to compile intelligence on terrorists entering the US via the southern border and block intelligence reviews that focus on threats posed by white supremacists and from Russia. (The nation reported on the difficulties described by DHS officials in monitoring white supremacists.)
“A guy like Brian Murphy, you’re not going to ruin his career and drag him through the mud over some crap,” said the former intelligence officer. According to him, several federal agencies, from the DHS to the FBI, asked if intelligence officials would volunteer for the assignment; When DHS I&A was looking for volunteers to be dispatched to Portland during an all-hands call, it was not met with enthusiasm.
“They asked for volunteers and nobody wanted to go,” said the former intelligence officer. “The fact that they asked for volunteers shows that this was outside of their remit…. You only do this when you are unable to order someone to leave, probably because it is illegal. ”
A recent FBI official described a similar call for volunteers to respond to riots this summer and agreed that it was extremely unusual. “This is the first time I’ve seen voluntary requests for … another field office,” the source said.
A current DHS officer described a colleague with expertise in electronic surveillance who was posted to Portland. But for what purpose? “Extracting information from the protester’s phones,” said the DHS official. While in Portland, an interacting task force involving DHS and the Justice Department used a sophisticated cell phone cloning attack, the details of which are still classified, to intercept protesters’ phone communications, according to two former intelligence officers familiar with the matter .
Cell phone cloning is the process of stealing a phone’s unique identifiers and copying them to another device to intercept communications received from the original device. The former intelligence agents described it as part of a “low level voice intercept” operation and declined to elaborate on it. One of them referred to the sensitivity of the monitoring tool and the other to an ongoing leak investigation within I&A.
“You get a glimpse of your goals, who they are, who they speak to – the hierarchy,” the former intelligence officer explained that many within the DHS believe that Antifa is an organized group – as opposed to the largely spontaneous, decentralized ideological one Tendency that most experts, including Trump’s own, have FBI directorbelieve it is. DHS intelligence even found some limited evidence of foreign sponsorship that it thought was thin. Attorney General William Barr, however recently claimed This Antifa receives foreign sponsorship – a necessary criterion to officially designate it as a terrorist organization, which President Trump had promised in July. (The nation recently reported on attempts by the DHS intelligence service to tie Antifa to Kurdish militant groups in Syria.)
“The collection of signals would not be useful in preventing opportunistic looting or violent confrontation. It requires coordinated, targeted and illegal activity to be carried out electronically, ”said Steven Aftergood, leader of the Federation of American Scientists’ project on government secrecy. “The general concern is that the DHS was treating mass public protests – not just violent people – as suspicious and targets of investigation or worse.”
Although it was not clear which people were specifically targeted in Portland, both former intelligence officers agreed that it was against protocol. “You have abused people’s rights,” said one.
According to the former intelligence officer, the Portland operation included secret aspects in addition to capturing signal information. This appears to be in line with a tip received this summer. Several members of the US Marshals Service (USMS) – part of the Justice Department – who were sent to Portland said they were affiliated with a private company called Strategic Oil The nation. Although they did not identify themselves as law enforcement, the travel documents contain information that they were marshals, including a special discount for federal government employees. Secret methods are usually only used for the most delicate operations, more often overseas than domestically. (The Justice Department did not respond to several requests for comment.)
The travel reports did not take into account that the DHS in Portland used any cover story. One of the biggest misunderstandings about the Portland operation was that the DHS was taking the lead, the former intelligence officer said, explaining that the Justice Department had an important role to play. While he didn’t deny that Murphy oversaw the task force segment of DHS I&A, he said the Department of Justice – particularly the USMS, but also the FBI – played a far more important role. “It was clear that he [Murphy] was judged from above, ”he said.
A current DHS official described how a colleague dispatched to Portland had warned them to use the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), part of the Justice Department, to access protesters’ phones. “He said he needed some kind of ‘special key’ to … He said DEA has that ability, vaguely hinting at possibly borrowing or using one from another agency once he gets to Portland . ”
In June, Buzzfeed News reported that the DEA had been authorized to monitor undercover protesters who were involved in demonstrations against the police murder of George Floyd. Then in August the USMS Approved that it had carried out an aerial surveillance of the protests in Portland. The former intelligence officers agreed that the Low Level Voice Intercept operation was conducted on the ground, far more invasive than aerial surveillance, and included equipment that I&A had no access to.
“[There were] At least two federal agencies and there was some creepy shit, “a former intelligence officer said of the Portland operation.
Attorney General Barr has repeatedly repeated President Trump’s rhetoric about Antifa. After President Trump allegedly With no evidence that a plane full of violent protesters had crossed the country, Barr claimed the Justice Department had received similar reports of violent protesters who had traveled from across the country to wreak havoc. Last week, Barr urged federal prosecutor indicting violent demonstrators of sedition, a seldom used charge for people who conspired to overthrow the government. This week Barr referred to New York, Portland and Seattle as “anarchist” jurisdictions – a term often used interchangeably with Antifa.
“When the president makes the kind of statements he makes on the news, you know you tacitly agree,” said the former intelligence officer. “You just need a wink from your manager.”