Federal Agencies Tapped Protesters’ Phones in Portland

Noble Horvath

Federal officers guard the front gate of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center during a protest on September 18, 2020, in Portland, Ore. (Nathan Howard / Getty Images) Thank you for signing up. For more from The Nation, check out our latest issue. Subscribe now for as little as […]

portland protest

Federal officers guard the front gate of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center during a protest on September 18, 2020, in Portland, Ore. (Nathan Howard / Getty Images)

This summer, Portland looked like a war zone. Phalanxes of shadowy law enforcement personnel fired crowd-control munitions, as plumes of teargas billowed into the sky. Federal agents without clearly visible identification rounded up protesters and loaded them into unmarked cars, on American streets. When videos began to spread online, it was hard to tell what was going on, or how widely.

The public backlash was ferocious, spurring Congress to demand that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) disclose information about the operation. But the DHS never came clean to the public about the full extent of its intelligence operations in Portland, which consisted of clandestine activities including interceptions of protesters’ phone calls conducted by a task force that included federal agencies besides the DHS, according to two former intelligence officers familiar with the matter.

“Unidentified stormtroopers. Unmarked cars. Kidnapping protesters and causing severe injuries in response to graffiti. These are not the actions of a democratic republic. [Department of Homeland Security’s] actions in Portland undermine its mission,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tweeted in mid-July. Later that month, The Washington Post reported that the DHS’s intelligence division, the Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) had generated intelligence reports on several prominent journalists covering the Portland protests. Members of both the House and Senate intelligence committees promptly demanded to know what kinds of intelligence they had collected on both journalists and protesters. A letter from the Senate contained the suggestive admonition that the division “is obligated by statute to keep the congressional intelligence committees fully and currently informed of its operations.”

Yet, at the time of this writing, DHS has failed to respond to Congress’s questions. “Notwithstanding the selective and incomplete document production thus far, the Committee has reason to believe that DHS and I&A are withholding responsive records related to I&A’s activities in Portland and in support of DHS’ response to nationwide protests,” House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff wrote in a letter to the DHS’s intelligence branch.

This is not to say that the DHS did not respond to the public furor. Shortly after Congress’s initial requests, DHS shocked the national security world by removing its high-ranking undersecretary of intelligence, Brian Murphy. Murphy had served as chief of I&A, the wing of the DHS that is a member of the rarefied Intelligence Community and is authorized to handle highly classified information about security threats to the domestic United States. Though Murphy’s removal appeared to mollify Congress, the public narrative that he had been removed for the intelligence reports on journalists struck some intelligence officials as dubious.

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