The Department of Homeland Security Is Still Lying To Congress About Its Portland Protest Surveillance

A knowledgeable former DHS official refutes a misleading claim in a recent DHS report. PLUS: Let's talk about antisemitism.

The Department of Homeland Security Is Still Lying To Congress About Its Portland Protest Surveillance
Pinnocchio before the judge. Illustration from "The Adventures of Pinnocchio" by Carlo Chiostri.

Edited by Sam Thielman

TWO WEEKS AGO, SEN. RON WYDEN (D-Ore.) released a less-redacted version of a report to Congress from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) about its disturbing activity in Portland during the summer 2020 protests. In an interview, a former DHS official took issue with a DHS assertion that FOREVER WARS found dubious upon arrival.

In response to questions from Congress, DHS' intelligence shop, known as Intelligence & Analysis (I&A), averred that "I&A did not collect, exploit or analyze aerial surveillance related to Portland." I wrote in the Oct. 31 edition that that didn't pass the smell test. Whether it was Customs & Border Patrol (CBP) or I&A that conducted the exploitation, DHS didn't put the surveillance assets into the air above Portland—and over 14 other cities around the country that summer—for nothing.

I ran DHS' assertion by a knowledgeable former DHS official, who I'm unfortunately unable to identify with more specificity. "That's false," the ex-official said. CBP, whose drones were in the Portland skies during the protests, "would routinely share the information" from the overhead surveillance at the command center in Portland that merged state, local and federal law enforcement and homeland security during the protests—including I&A.

"It's not that we were the ones exploiting it, because we weren't the ones collecting it, but we were looking at it, as part of all sources of information that would have been gathered," the ex-official continued. "It was a multi-team approach. We'd get up and brief what we knew, CBP would show their aerial footage. The idea that we weren't the ones doing it—I think it's true, but I think it's disingenuous."

That assertion was made not by the Trump-era DHS, but by the Biden-era DHS. Specifically, under the auspices of then-acting I&A undersecretary Melissa Smislova, who's now deputy undersecretary for intelligence enterprise readiness, now that I&A is run by familiar War on Terror figure Ken Wainstein. Both the DHS activity and the report are highly questionable.

IN THE TIME IT TOOK me to read the whole DHS report, compare it to the earlier redacted version and make a few phone calls, Gizmodo's Dell Cameron did a great, thorough piece on it. Read that, since it'll let me skip over a bunch of recapping. But while the report reveals disturbing DHS intrusions onto basic American liberties, it hardly seems like the final word on what went down in Portland.

According to the report, when I&A mobilized to Portland—supporting the U.S. Marshals, DHS' Federal Protective Service, and Customs and Border Patrol's BORTAC tactical unit—the work of training analysts on what was and wasn't acceptable to collect and disseminate was an afterthought. "New hires, who had barely received any form of training, were immediately activated to assist in any capacity possible," the report states. Leadership at I&A adopted a term, "Violent Antifa Anarchist Inspired" (VAAI) violence, conflating several left-wing categories into a single catch-all category to direct intelligence analysis. The elision also made any non-right-wing violence seem like a concerted left-wing plot, rather than an expression of pent-up rage, perhaps in response to law enforcement shooting protesters in the head with less-lethal rounds. Even with this sweeping analytic mandate, the report notes that DHS' open-source intelligence reports still "did not draw a connection to ANTIFA."

All this came at a time when the Trump administration was mobilizing the domestic apparatus of the War on Terror, from DHS to the Joint Terrorism Task Forces, against the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests. The VAAI catch-all was convenient for that purpose. (The ex-DHS official defended the use of the term as being in line with what the FBI used.)  

So it's conspicuous that the report barely mentions Chad Wolf, the Trumpy acting DHS secretary at the time, who was deeply involved in DHS activity in Portland, including on the ground. One of the only references to Wolf comes in a footnote. Brian Murphy, then in charge of I&A, told investigators that Wolf and deputy Ken Cuccinelli wanted I&A to compile Iraq War-style "baseball card" intelligence reports on what Murphy says was "everyone participating in the Portland protests." Apparently Cuccinelli had a "supposition that a certain USPER [U.S. person] was funding the violence in Portland," and I have to guess he was trying to draw a bullshit connection to George Soros.

Unusually for government documents like this one, the report singles out Murphy as a uniquely nefarious figure. (The earlier version of the report blacked out references to Murphy by name.) Its recommendations are bland and bureaucratic—except for saying Murphy, whom Wolf moved out of I&A when some of the Portland intelligence abuse surfaced, should not be allowed to return to DHS intelligence leadership. That's likely explained by Murphy filing multiple whistleblower complaints about Wolf and other DHS leaders, ranging from suppression of Russian election interference to the downplaying of white-supremacist violence to the DHS intelligence fiasco in Portland. This report wasn't created by the DHS inspector general—although, in fairness, it doesn't look like that office is currently a bastion of integrity—but instead "at the request of the Acting Secretary," Chad Wolf.

There are several quotes from DHS intelligence analysts specifically denigrating Murphy as toxic, in both his management style and his intelligence approach. They accuse him of "refusing to listen to counter viewpoints, abruptly making decisions, and ignoring data that did not comport with his perceived analysis." Whether that's representative of the overall assessment of Murphy inside I&A is murkier. A performance review seen by FOREVER WARS gives him pretty high marks, including a 78 percent approval mark on "teamwork" and a 64 percent on "job satisfaction." Reached by FOREVER WARS, Murphy declined to comment for this story.

At the same time, the overwhelming focus on Murphy, who had whistleblower complaints— plural—out against Wolf, in a report emanating from Wolf's office, raises major red flags regarding who was really responsible for the intelligence abuses in Portland. "It's reasonable to ask if the report goes too far in blaming Murphy for more systematic problems like staff turnover, lack of training, and the long-standing murkiness around what I&A's limits are," investigator Nick Schwellenbach of the Project on Government Oversight, who's been tracking DHS malfeasance, told FOREVER WARS.

Then there's the question of politicization. The section recounting the creation of the "Violent Antifa Anarchist Inspired" activity begins with a blandishment that "no politicization [of intelligence] was found." That's just not a credible statement about the adoption of a threat category in order to justify DHS surveillance of constitutionally-protected political activity, all at a time when the president of the United States was demanding the national-security apparatus target the protesters. Beyond that, DHS was running wild in Portland, to include stuffing protesters into unmarked vans for detention without charge. It's important to focus on I&A's activity, but that isn't the end of the story.

If you've read my book REIGN OF TERROR, you know I think summer 2020 represents not only a moment when the apparatus of the War on Terror was explicitly marshalled against nonwhite and leftist protesters but a template for doing so, at scale, the next time MAGA controls the presidency. That's why it's important to get to the ground truth about what DHS did in Portland, and it doesn't look like we're there yet.  

AMONG THE REASONS THIS EDITION TOOK AWHILE IS THAT I'VE BEEN TRYING TO WRITE ABOUT ANTISEMITISM, which has kept me from focusing on much else for the past week-plus. Only that's kind of inaccurate—I kept starting and stopping, to the point of not writing, as my drafts/structures begin in my head, and I can't seem to escape my head over this.

In 2018 I wrote about the classic antisemitism—that is, modern, European, 19th-to-20th century antisemitism—substituting for and salvaging a challenge to the capitalist order, and connected it and its utility to the 21st century preoccupation with George Soros among reactionaries. If you've read Leon Poliakov, you get the idea. Capital accumulation through speculation isn't being challenged, a Jew is, and through the use of the Jew as the incarnation of capitalist oppression (we can also be blamed for communism, as needed), fascists can present antisemitism as anticapitalism, all while serving as capitalism's attack dogs.

Kyrie Irving may have posted an antisemitic video, but Amazon sells that video. Instead of challenges to Amazon's destructive business model of achieving scale at all costs—not trying to direct traffic or anything, but if you've never fallen down a documentary rabbit hole on Prime, absolutely insane shit, like YouTube-grade shit, is available to stream on it—I've seen posts I'm not going to link inaccurately calling Jeff Bezos a Jew.

I choose to accept Kyrie's apology, but his initial obstinacy hurt my heart. It may be hard to communicate how much it can feel like a guardrail slipping when someone who's a part of a civic (though not public) institution in Brooklyn, a place that for over 100 years has been a home to us, takes a dismissive position toward antisemitism. Brooklyn has been a very safe place to be a Jew, and we want to keep that record going. Because a lesson that recurs throughout Jewish history is that 100-plus years isn't really that much time to judge a place's openness to its Jewish minority. The way this often kicks off is that a place is a welcoming home for us—Cordoba, Edirne, Salonika—until it isn't.

But I would submit that Amazon’s business model threatens Jews more than a basketball player does. Surveillance capitalism—in this case, Amazon, the film host platform; and Twitter, the distribution platform Kyrie chose—threatens us at scale. And as long as I'm talking about this, I don't trust the Anti-Defamation League to present an accurate picture of antisemitism to Kyrie so much as one that instructs, inaccurately and destructively, that anti-Zionism is antisemitism.

You can see that this didn't really cohere into a piece, which is why I'm not leading the newsletter with it. This is me venting and reaching for history for clarity. Luckily, we don't need this to cohere, since John Ganz wrote a really great edition of his subscription-worthy newsletter about it.

AN EXTREMELY MINOR UPDATE about the counterterrorism "Country Plans" authorized by the Presidential Policy Guidance that FOREVER WARS covered on Halloween. I caught up with Colin Kahl, the undersecretary of defense for policy, on a Defense Writers Group call late Tuesday afternoon. Kahl says the Pentagon is still drafting the plans. They won't be done in days, he said, but they also won't take months to produce. Not super satisfying, detail-wise, but it's what I have for you.

SO IS YEVGENY PRIGOZHIN TROLLING or is this an oh-my-god-he-admit-it moment? I have no expertise on Russia and can't read Russian, plus it seems from the Wall Street Journal's write-up that "Putin's Chef" is making fun of Bloomberg's query about any 2022 election interference his troll farm might have been involved in. At the same time, Prighozin may be past giving a fuck about denying it, as he no longer denies founding the Wagner mercenary company. Patrick Wintour at the Guardian has some Kremlinology about the rise in Prighozin's fortunes now that Wagner permits the Kremlin to maintain its occupation in eastern Ukraine without a call-up, something familiar from our own War on Terror.

PJ HARVEY'S GENIUS shines brightest through her apocrypha. 4-Track Demos, which is exactly as advertised, is my pick for her most perfect collection of songs. Her rawness has an incandescence that makes the records she did with Steve Albini, of all people, seem overproduced. "Snake" should be Polly and a guitar that sounds like a chain-link fence getting combed by a fork. If that makes sense to you, you've correctly guessed that Stories from The City is my least favorite PJ Harvey record, although "This Is Love" is a banger. I own the demos LPs for Dry, Let England Shake and To Bring You My Love, and I don't own the regular LPs for those albums. I also have her Peel Sessions, which would be worth it even if it was "That Was My Veil" and 11 songs of static.

All this is to say that it was inevitable that I splurged for B-Sides, Demos & Rarities, six LPs worth of everything I love about one of my favorite songwriters. "Nina in Ecstasy," which is Polly and I think a keyboard, is one of the most beautiful songs ever written. "66 Promises" was the B-side to "Good Fortune" and blows it out of the water. "Somebody's Down, Somebody's Name" is the B-side of "Down By The Water" and while I am not insane enough to say that song could be outshone, "Somebody's Down" makes it a competition. "The Big Guns Called Me Back Again" takes us on a wonderful return to the foreboding of Let England Shake. Somehow I either forgot or never knew she wrote a song for Shaker Aamer during the Guantanamo hunger strike. I wrote a lot of this edition of FOREVER WARS to B-Sides, and it won't be the last. Can we just admit that Bob Dylan walked so Polly Jean Harvey could run?