A watchdog group investigating the deployment of federal police against protesters in Portland and other cities announced a lawsuit against the U.S. Justice Department and other agencies on Friday, accusing government officials of unlawfully withholding public records under the Freedom of Information Act.
American Oversight, a nonprofit staffed by several former U.S. government officials, is suing six federal agencies for failing to produce documents connected with the federal forces deployed to counter Black Lives Matter protests in several cities, encounters which have seen the firing of chemical agents and harmful projectiles at demonstrators, sometimes resulting in serious injury.
The agencies named in the lawsuit include the Justice Department, the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Department of Defense, and the National Guard Bureau.
Some of the records sought include legal guidance given to federal agents who have hidden their badges or refused to identify their agencies. The group also seeks records identifying all federal and military forces deploying in U.S. cities, any orders issues to personnel regarding the use of force, and any rules of engagement they were ordered to follow.
The group also seeks access to any “assessments, reports, or recommendations prepared for senior officials regarding data or intelligence collected” during the protests.
“Rubber bullets and tear gas don’t fire themselves, and federal agents don’t fan out across the country without orders,” Austin Evers, executive director of American Oversight, said in a statement. “Unidentified police acting on uncertain authority have no place in a democracy.”
“While [Attorney General] Bill Barr and [Homeland Security chief] Chad Wolf might find it more convenient to keep the public in the dark, we know there must be a paper trail, and we intend to make sure it comes to light,” Evers added.
Lawsuits filed under the Freedom of Information Act can take several months to reach a resolution, particularly when multiple federal agencies are involved. The DOJ generally assigns lawyers to defend agencies in court, and the lawyers will usually attempt to withhold as many records as possible, citing a variety of exemptions to the federal transparency law.
Controversy ensued last month after men in combat uniforms were filmed snatching protesters off the streets and dragging them into what appeared to be unmarked rental vans. The armed men were swarmed by demonstrators demanding to know who they were. None of the men identified themselves or explained that a lawful arrest was being made.
Rumors spread on social media that the men in camouflage could have been members of a private militia and that the arrests were actually kidnappings. Adding fuel to the fire, federal officials repeatedly declined to comment on the tactics, which internet onlookers began comparing to those of the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police of German-occupied Europe.
In a hearing before the Senate committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Wolf said that federal forces had been deployed in Portland solely to defend a federal courthouse that had come under siege by protesters in the wake of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of Minneapolis police earlier this year.
Wolf also responded to allegations by former top Bush administration officials, Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff, former secretaries of homeland security, who had signed a letter in July accusing Wolf and other senior officials of violating protesters’ constitutional rights. During another exchange before the panel, Wolf acknowledged that while federal forces have withdrawn from protests in Portland, they remain in the city are ready to redeploy at a moment’s notice.
In a statement last month, Jann Carson, interim executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, said that what’s happening in Portland should concern all Americans. “Usually when we see people in unmarked cars forcibly grab someone off the street we call it kidnapping,” she said. “The actions of the militarized federal officers are flat-out unconstitutional and will not go unanswered.”