Poorly trained federal officers collected intelligence on Portland protesters and journalists during last year’s unrest, even though the demonstrators were not considered national security threats, a review by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security found.
Dubbed “baseball cards,” the dossiers were a violation of protesters’ rights, The Oregonian reported.
One former manager told DHS investigators the intelligence collectors were like a “bunch of 6th graders chasing a soccer ball — everyone wanted to be the collector who found the golden egg or found the threat,” the report said.
Gathering information on citizens, particularly during constitutionally protected activities like protests, is prohibited unless there is an arrest for a federal crime or reason to believe they are a considerable threat, the report stated.
The investigation was submitted to DHS on Jan. 6 and released after pressure from U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon). It describes how senior leadership at the agency pushed conspiracy theories about Antifa and encouraged investigators to violate constitutional rights, Oregon Public Radio reported.
Downtown Portland was swarmed with thousands of demonstrators for months last summer, initially in response to the murder of George Floyd. The crowds’ focus on a federal courthouse was one reason the Trump administration deployed hundreds of DHS officers from multiple agencies to the city. The protests frequently descended into violence, particularly late in the night when all but the most militant demonstrators had left.
Convinced the nightly protests were coordinated rather than spontaneous, the intelligence collectors were hoping to identify a single person or group “masterminding the attacks,” the report said, but no such evidence was found.
Some DHS staffers raised concerns over the legality of the intrusive collection of “mass amounts” of information on protesters when the arrests were unrelated to domestic terrorism, the Oregonian reported, but the political appointees leading the agency “sternly rebuffed” them, stating the “requests from leadership” were enough justification to continue.
The report blamed poor training, and inadequate guidance from superiors about existing legal restrictions for collecting such information on American citizens who were not considered a “true threat.”
“Hunches or intuitions are not sufficient bases for collection, and without more information would have been inappropriate,” the report said. “Regarding American citizens, in the context of mass protests or protection of critical infrastructure, production of an (intelligence background report) requires at least an arrest for a federal crime or more detailed information that the subject poses a considerable threat.”