I believe deeply that how our government’s security forces are seen by the American public is critical to their ability to protect us and our ability to maintain a healthy democracy. That belief comes from experience: I served for decades in the U.S. Marine Corps, as a Department of Defense spokesperson, and as the Trump administration’s first Department of Homeland of Security spokesperson. It’s as an American who cares profoundly about the missions of both DOD and DHS—and believes their reputations are essential to achieving those missions—that I’ve followed the Trump administration’s heavy-handed response to protests across the country in recent months, and especially DHS’s role in that response. And I’m appalled by what I’m seeing. It’s damaging to DHS, and it’s damaging to American democracy.
Last month, the sight of U.S. military forces on the streets of our nation’s capital surprised and angered many Americans, including military and veteran communities, former diplomats, former senior national security leaders, and the general public. While federal, state, and local law enforcement officers were actively involved in the response to protests in Washington, D.C., it was the mixing of men and women in military uniforms and equipment as part of the law enforcement response that sparked particular concern for me. Images of military and military-looking individuals threatening the use of force, and in some instances actually using it, raised crucial questions about the appropriateness of a militarized response to civil unrest.
During the protests in D.C., the military units deployed in and around the city were a mix of National Guard and active duty forces. They wore their normal camouflage uniforms. Some were armed, some were unarmed. Although the active duty units were not called into action, the deployment of a rapid response force from the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division raised serious questions about the nature of the military’s response. National Guard units from the District and several states were deployed on the streets of Washington for several days. Some were involved in the controversial clearing of Lafayette Park for the president’s photo op at a church; and low-flying National Guard helicopters were used as crowd control measures. These actions sparked widespread condemnation and led the Secretary of Defense to order a formal investigation as well as Congress to hold oversight hearings.
It is through that prism—of a militarized response to protests and harsh public criticism of that response—that we should examine the ongoing federal response to protests in Portland, Oregon. In Portland, there are no military units – active duty or National Guard – currently involved. However, there is the perception of a military response—which is understandable, as DHS and other federal agencies have deployed law enforcement officers in military-style uniforms, wielding weapons associated with combat forces abroad. Their uniforms, equipment, and tactics have created the distinct appearance of yet another armed military response to protest and elements of civil unrest. Making matters worse, DHS’s leadership has indulged in harsh—indeed, militaristic—rhetoric in explaining and justifying its aggressive response. These actions, and others, are wrong, even dangerous.
It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture given the disturbing images and videos emerging daily from Portland. But it’s critical to step back and recognize the elements that make what’s unfolding in Portland such a dangerous step for DHS and for our democracy as a whole.
First, it’s worth remembering why DHS exists in the first place. The department was formed in the aftermath of 9/11. Less than two weeks after the attacks, former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge was appointed as director of a new office of homeland security in the White House. (Of note, Governor Ridge and other DHS secretaries have recently criticized the DHS response in Portland.) The Homeland Security Act of 2002, passed in November of that year, created DHS by bringing 22 different federal agencies together into one department. The creation of DHS was the federal response to the finding, after the 9/11 attacks, that no single agency within the government was responsible for securing the country. DHS’s primary mission at its inception was “to prevent terrorist attacks within the United States and reduce the vulnerability of the United States to terrorism.”
While the core mission of DHS remains essentially unchanged, its roles and responsibilities have grown in response to various threats including cyber-attacks, election interference, drug smuggling and transnational criminal organizations. None of these threats appear to be present in Portland’s protests. So, at a minimum, whatever DHS is doing in Portland strays wildly from the reason DHS exists in the first place.
But it’s worse than just mission creep. DHS’s response to events in Portland represents at least seven elements that take key dangers of the militarized response to protest Americans witnessed in D.C. and attempt to launder them through the civilian apparatus of DHS. Each one is bad; taken together, they’re even worse:
1. Civil unrest in a U.S. city does not constitute a threat to the homeland and is outside the mission of the Department. DHS’s Federal Protective Service is charged with safeguarding federal property, like courthouses, but the employment of tactical units and their operations on streets increasingly far away from the federal buildings in Portland is questionable. Simply put, it’s just not clear how DHS’s mission includes whatever DHS is doing in Portland—which suggests DHS may be stretching, even overstepping, its authorities.
2. There was no request from state or local authorities for assistance. In fact, city and state leaders in Oregon have expressly said they don’t want DHS or federal forces operating as they have been in response to the protests. DHS operates in states, cities, and localities across the United States, normally in close coordination with local authorities. The aggressive DHS response in Portland is both unwanted and unwarranted, and it puts in jeopardy the cooperation with local authorities nationwide that is essential to DHS fulfilling its actual mission.
3. The wearing of military-style uniforms and equipment creates the appearance of an armed military response to civil unrest—a tactic more common to authoritarian regimes than to healthy democracies. The Secretary of Defense has expressed his concerns over this appearance, and several retired military leaders have spoken out against military involvement, or the appearance of it, in law enforcement actions against U.S. citizens whose activities constitute civil unrest, not anything close to a true homeland security threat such as rebellion or civil war.
4. The bellicose rhetoric from DHS’s senior officials has further inflamed the situation, rather than trying to defuse it. In addition, the heavy-handed federal response has worsened the situation and fomented even larger protests. It simply can’t be good for DHS or the country for DHS to be making matters in Portland worse rather than better.
5. President Trump’s rhetoric has been overtly partisan and political, focusing his ire on states and cities he labels as “Democrat” or “Radical Left.” The president’s words clearly politicize DHS’s response. DHS is a federal agency which serves all of the American people, regardless of party affiliation. To have DHS so closely tied to a partisan project tarnishes the department and risks its ability to earn public trust in the future.
6. The administration has a trust deficit and lacks credibility, so DHS’s defense of its actions are colored by mistrust. Even if DHS’s actions are within its authorities – and there remain valid questions about exceeding its authority – the Department’s words and deeds are often viewed with suspicion. That’s unhealthy for the situation in Portland; and it’s unhealthy for DHS in the myriad ways the department interacts with Americans (and others) each day across the country.
7. DHS has acting officials at senior levels throughout the organization, which calls into question decision-making that appears to be politically, rather than operationally, driven. The president has also made it clear he prefers “actings” so he can exert more control over them. Acting officials must be more concerned with pleasing the president in order to keep their jobs, and the two most senior DHS officials are seen to be behaving that way.
While Portland represents the most recent set of harmful actions by DHS, the damage to the agency’s reputation has accumulated in recent years, even before the scandal in Portland unfolded. First, President Trump’s oversized focus on the southwest border and his campaign promise of a border wall – or half of it anyway, since U.S. taxpayers are paying for the wall, not Mexico as Trump promised– took resources and focus away from DHS’s critical missions to protect the homeland. Under Trump, DHS has become the department of southwest border enforcement, not the Department of Homeland Security it was founded to be.
Second, sending active duty military troops to the border with Mexico in 2018 was a political ploy right before the midterm elections. That the troops are still there, with diminished numbers of border crossers (and Customs and Border Protection apparently able to deploy its forces away from the border to Portland and other cities, now including Seattle), demonstrates the lack of operational need for those forces.
Third, the stand-up of a DHS task force to guard statues was both baldly political and outside the mission of the Department. The president’s June 26 executive order on protecting monuments, memorials and statues was unnecessary because of existing federal law and because DHS already has a 2010 plan with the Department of the Interior to protect critical infrastructure and icons like the Statue of Liberty from possible terrorist attack. Although it was not required by the executive order, DHS stood up a new task force and sent some of its law enforcement personnel to guard statues whose protection wasn’t of great national and international significance, nor were they at risk of terrorist attack.
The Department of Homeland Security has many essential responsibilities, first and foremost in protecting the homeland from terrorist and other severe threats. Its mission, and the professionals who carry it out under challenging conditions, day-in and day-out, should not be degraded by actions that serve partisan political purposes rather than the nation’s security. How DHS is seen by the American people matters—to DHS personnel, and indeed as a part of American national security. It will take some time and serious effort for the department to recover from the damage done to its credibility and reputation over the past three-plus years.
Photo: Federal Police clash with protesters in front of the Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse in downtown Portland on July 25, 2020 (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)