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Law enforcement agents in military gear and sometimes uniforms have been the face of the Trump administration's confrontational response to nationwide waves of protests in the wake of George Floyd's death in police custody.
Oregon's attorney general has accused these unidentified agents of unlawful arrests and violating citizen's constitutional rights.
In recent weeks, the Trump administration has announced deployments of additional DHS and DOJ personnel to Chicago, Albuquerque, and Kansas City, and threatened more.
Using open-source information, social media posts, and press photos, we've compiled a guide on how to identify the forces in your area and the scope of their jurisdiction
In mid-July, a group of men in military camouflage, ballistic plate carriers, and tactical helmets walked right up to a small group of protesters in Portland and isolated one, who immediately raised his hands up. They put him in an unmarked, rental Dodge Grand Caravan.
Only later, thanks to a cell phone recording made by another protester, did Americans learn those armed men were actually law enforcement officers engaged in an arrest.
The officers were members of Customs and Border Protection's special response team, known as BORTAC, but they did not identify themselves as such. And as the national media and general public's eyes turned on Portland, they found over a hundred more federal agents in combat fatigues already there, arresting, tear-gassing, and clashing with demonstrators on a nightly basis on a legal basis many Americans found questionable.
The federal presence in Portland was justified, according to the White House, under an an executive order President Donald Trump signed on protecting monuments in reaction to a wave of vandalism of statues commemorating figures from the country's racist past. A passage buried deep in the order states that upon request, the secretary of defense, attorney general, and the secretary of homeland security "shall provide, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law, personnel to assist with the protection of Federal monuments, memorials, statues, or property."
This jurisdiction is on shaky legal ground. In Oregon, the state attorney general is suing the federal government over agents' behavior, alleging that the lack of clear identification prevents citizens from being able to tell whether they are being kidnapped by armed civilians or arrested by law enforcement. Congress has begun to respond — Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY) has sponsored legislation to force federal agents to wear clear identification, and Rep. Ruben Gallegos (D-AZ), a Marine Corps veteran, has called for agents to stop wearing military camouflage. Gallegos and leadership within the Department of Defense are concerned that the feds' use of military camouflage is being used to intimidate civilians, as there's little tactical reason to wear green and brown drab battle uniforms in the urban Pacific Northwest — or any American city.
In recent weeks, the Trump administration has announced deployments of additional DHS and DOJ personnel to Chicago, Albuquerque, and Kansas City, and threatened more. Using open-source information, social media posts, and press photos, we've compiled this guide on how to identify the forces in your area and the scope of their jurisdiction.
DHS agents from multiple agencies have been involved in the federal crackdown in Portland.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
These agents operate under dual jurisdiction of Trump's executive order and the 100-mile border rule that allows Customs and Border Protection agents to perform warrant-free searches and detentions within 100 miles of a US Border or coastline.
DHS Federal Protective Service agents, who have been heavily involved in Portland and other cities, protect federal buildings. Many of them have been observed in riot gear and other military-style uniforms. This photo shows a Federal Protective Service officer next to another DHS agent. Note the shield-shaped patch with the DHS seal in the middle, and the dark blue or black fatigues.
Customs and Border Protection, an agency under the DHS, has used members of several teams during the Portland protests.
Chad Wolf/Homeland Security
Most notably, members of its BORTAC tactical teams have participated in street arrests of protesters and activists using rental cars, like in the witness video recorded on July 15.
BORTAC agents in Portland have been wearing some of the most distinctive outfits. they wear a tombstone-shaped DHS patch on their right shoulder, as seen in this photo posted — and then deleted — by Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf.
—Matcha chai (@matcha_chai) July 15, 2020
Their fatigues appear to be the same camouflage US soldiers wear in battle.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
The green and brown patterns are designed to help soldiers and airmen blend into the mountains and fields of Afghanistan, and have been the battle dress for U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan since 2010. US troops wear these with their name tags, rank, command and special skills tabs, even in combat zones.
Here's a clearer photo of an agent in Multicam or a similar pattern displaying a BORTAC tab velcroed on his left shoulder.
Acting Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Ken Cuccinelli said during a Senate hearing on Tuesday that the remaining federal agents in Portland would stop wearing camouflage, and indicated that the department was "moving rapidly to replace" those uniforms. DHS BORTAC teams were observed wearing multicam, but other CPB and DHS teams wore non-camoflage military-style BDUs, which Cuccinelli did not comment on.
There are also non-BORTAC CBP patrol officers on duty, who may be in plain olive green fatigues and not Army camouflage.
Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP
DHS agents under Immigration and Customs Enforcement have also been active at the protests, particularly members of the agency's Special Response Team.
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ICE is a subsidiary of DHS, but is not part of Customs and Border Protection. Nevertheless, members of ICE SRT teams have been photographed in similar Army camouflage to the BORTAC teams.
Note the square, not tombstone-shaped DHS patch on the agent's right shoulder. ICE SRT agents may wear other patches, like the circular ones visible 30 seconds into this PR video.
Militarized ICE agents, alongside CBP's BORTAC units, have reportedly been used by the administration to apply pressure to "sanctuary cities," defying federal immigration laws.
The U.S. Marshals service, which is administered by the Department of Justice, not the DHS, has also taken an active role in the Portland protests
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Deputy U.S. Marshals were responsible for the shooting on Donavan La Bella, an unarmed protester who was shot in the head with a "less-lethal" round that nearly resulted in his death.
Marshals have been photographed in similar uniforms to DHS agents on scene, but often carry distinctive circular patches with a five-pointed star in the middle.
Marshals from the service's Special Operations Group have also been photographed wearing Army battle dress, similar to BORTAC, identified by circular patches with the date "1971" on them, the year SOG was created.
Federal agents under the Bureau of Prisons have also been active at protests, most notably in Washington, D.C. in early June.
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Business Insider previously reported that the BOP agents were deputized by the U.S. Marshals service, which is allowed to draft federal, state or local law enforcement for assignments. The officers were specifically part of a Special Operations and Response Team, which was designed to intervene in and control prison riots. Here's a photo of a SORT team with Attorney General Bill Barr.
—Ryan J. Reilly (@ryanjreilly) June 11, 2020
SORT teams were responsible for injuring several fellow BOP staff members during a training exercise last year when they used live flash bang munitions and pepper spray instead of prop devices.
In photos of the SORT teams with Barr and wire images from the D.C. protests, SORT teams were dressed casually in blue t-shirts and largely unmarked plate carriers and riot gear.
It seems unlikely that SORT teams would be deputized for smaller protests, or used for arresting or detaining suspects like the BORTAC teams or Federal Marshals, as their training focuses on large-scale emergencies and hostage situations.
Federal agents are using many different kinds of vehicles to respond to protests. Here are some important circumstances to highlight.
The BORTAC teams use civilian rental cars, like the Dodge Grand Caravan in the witness video from Portland. Federal law enforcement often drive similar cars to civilian law enforcement, though more often use unmarked SUVs or sedans.
In Portland, BORTAC officers drove vehicles rented from a company called EAN Holdings, according to Willamette Week. EAN Holdings is a subsidiary of Enterprise Holdings, which owns Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Alamo Rent a Car and National Car Rental.
Federal tactical teams like BORTAC and ICE's SRT will also have access to armored vehicles similar to ones used by local police forces.
These vehicles, like the commonly-used Lenco Bearcat, do not prove the presence of federal agents, as they are readily available to local police as well.
Over the past two decades, local police have also been purchasing military equipment en masse through the government's 1033 program, which sells surplus vehicles and equipment from the Defense Department's stockpiles to law enforcement. This include Mine Resistant Armor Protected Vehicles, called MRAPS, which have been visible at protests around the country. These were designed to resist the road bombs that targeted US troops in Iraq.
The list of 1033 purchase is publicly available, if a little clunky: at the Defense Logistics Agency's website, you can download an Excel spreadsheet of recent purchases by clicking the link that says "Alaska-Wyoming and U.S. Territories." You can also see an earlier database compiled by the Marshall Project here.
Customs and Border Protections' presence at protests only became conspicuous when their ground agents started taking a hands-on role with protesters.
But CBP assets have been used for years to monitor and surveil protests and demonstrations around the country.
CBP, like many federal agencies including NASA, operates several General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper drones, which are also called "Predator B" drones. Unlike the weaponized versions used in America's wars overseas, CBP's Predator B craft aren't armed, but are used for extended surveillance. They were activated in the George Floyd protests almost immediately, as one was observed flying over Minneapolis on May 29.
Larger planes, like the P-3 Airborne Early Warning detection and monitoring aircraft, have also been deployed to Portland for surveillance purposes by the DHS. CBP has a list of its air assets online here. Reporters at Gizmodo have also mapped out where the CBP's Predator fleet has been used over the past year, including over many protest locations.
On July 30 and 31, the federal forces dramatically scaled back their presence on Portland's streets.
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The protests that followed, on Thursday and Friday nights and through the weekend, were noticeably calmer than prior weeks. Federal officers are still present in the city, however, and the Trump administration is still committed to the strategy. On Friday night, the president tweeted "Homeland Security is not leaving Portland until local police complete cleanup of Anarchists and Agitators!"
It's important to note that the federal response in Portland was not performed in a vacuum. Federal agents only continued tactics that the Portland Police Bureau had begun weeks before. Like in many cities, law enforcement's behavior often sets the tone for the protests that follow: with violence begetting more violence. In the event of a flare-up, the president says he'll deploy federal troops to protests with or without the state's request to put his thumb on the scale. If they show up, this guide is a start to identifying who they are.
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