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Udall, Heinrich Demand Answers from Trump Administration on Deployment of Anonymous Federal Agents to American Cities

WASHINGTON—Today, U.S. Senators Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) joined a group of 27 Senate Democrats in a letter to U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr and Acting Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Chad Wolf demanding answers on the alarming actions of federal law enforcement officers against unarmed protesters in Portland, Oregon and the Trump administration’s threat to deploy similar unmarked and unaccountable law enforcement officers in American cities, potentially including Albuquerque.

In the letter, the senators detailed recent instances of excessive force against unarmed protesters by unmarked federal law enforcement officers in Portland, Oregon and highlighted their concerns that President Trump had issued statements threatening several other American cities with further deployments on Monday.

“We write with urgent concern about disturbing reports of actions by Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security officers against American protesters, as well as threats by the President to deploy federal law enforcement agents into the streets of more American cities. Federal officials should not be dispatched into the streets of our cities without proper authority, training, and accountability. Nor should they be violating the civil rights of Americans who are exercising their First Amendment rights and seeking reforms of their own government’s policies,” the senators wrote.

The senators continued, “Critically, it remains unclear what legal authorities the federal government has invoked for its militarized interventions in American cities. All of this is part of an alarming pattern by the Trump Administration in taking an aggressive and excessive response to protests catalyzed by the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many others. This includes the forcible clearing of peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square, in front of the White House, shortly before a photo opportunity for President Trump near St. John’s Episcopal Church—reportedly at your direction, Attorney General Barr.

“The right of Americans to join together, assemble peaceably, and protest is vital to our democracy,” the senators concluded. “It is at the core of the First Amendment. We decry violence in all its forms. But Americans should be able to exercise their rights under the First Amendment without inappropriate interference or legally questionable activities by federal officers. They should be able to expect accountability, transparency, and professionalism whenever federal forces are on the streets of America’s cities.” 

Udall and Heinrich also today joined a group of 18 senators to Wolf, Acting Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection Mark Morgan, and Acting Director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Matthew Albence demanding answers about the use of federal law enforcement against protestors expressing their constitutional First Amendment rights. The senators are seeking answers to a range of questions, including how many people federal law enforcement has detained, what documentation was being preserved on arrests, the list of equipment used by officers, and how DHS has addressed any complaints they have received.

In addition to Udall and Heinrich, the letter was led by Senators Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Jeffrey A. Merkley (D-Ore.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Bernard Sanders (D-Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), and Jack Reed (D-R.I.).

The senators’ questions for Barr and Wolf in the letter include:

1. Who—the Attorney General, the Acting Secretary of Homeland Security, or some other official—has directed the federal response to the protests in Portland and Washington?  And who is directing such operations in other American cities?

2. The Trump Administration has not clearly articulated its legal basis, if any, for deploying federal officers to American cities to engage in this conduct against protesters.  And it is far from clear that all of these activities by the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security are fully and properly authorized under federal law.  When will the Department of Justice and/or the Department of Homeland Security provide a full public explanation of its purported legal rationale?

3. As explained above, there have been extensive reports of federal officers wearing camouflage and tactical gear who have jumped out of unmarked vehicles and detained protesters in Portland, but these officers have evidently lacked any obvious identifying markers.

a. What agency or office is conducting these operations?

b. What legal authority do you believe permits this activity?

c. Which official made the final decision to authorize this activity?

d. Do the Department of Justice and/or the Department of Homeland Security intend to use this tactic, or similar ones, in other American cities?

4. Why have federal agents deployed in American cities and authorized to execute arrests not consistently worn uniforms identifying them as law enforcement officers and indicating their employing agency?

5. Some reports have indicated that federal agents in Portland have detained individuals who were not near federal property. To the extent your agencies are relying on legal authorities regarding the protection of federal property, what do you believe are the legal limits on the actions of federal agents operating at a significant distance from federal property?

6. For the Department of Justice and/or Department of Homeland Security officers who have been deployed to Portland, Washington, and any other American cities to respond to recent protests, what training have they received in terms of crowd control, use of force, and civil rights?

7. Department of Homeland Security agents are reportedly set to be deployed to Chicago soon, and the President has also referenced cities such as New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore, and Oakland.  In what cities is the Department of Justice and/or the Department of Homeland Security currently planning deployments against protesters?

8. When the Department of Justice and/or the Department of Homeland Security deploys officers to respond to protesters in an American city, what notice will be provided about the nature and scope of their activities—including whether federal agents will be operating in the streets without identifying markings?

Full text of the letter is available here.