DHS’s Portland Follies: Tracing the Official Public Narrative and Internal Communications

Now is a good moment to reflect on the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)’s words (as well as actions) in Portland.

Since early July, footage of military-clad federal law enforcement personnel advancing through the streets of Portland confronting protesters of both the peaceful and violent types has shaped domestic and global perceptions of American democracy. For critics of President Trump, the images of aggressive federal agents, combined with videos showing protesters being tear-gassed or hauled away in unmarked vehicles, raise fears of authoritarianism. As if militarized state and local police weren’t bad enough, the dispatch of militarized federal law enforcement was viewed as crossing a red line—an illegitimate political weapon wielded to boost Trump’s reelection prospects. For Trump’s supporters, the images of protesting moms and graffitied government buildings convey fears of liberalism gone berserk—anarchy being loosed upon America. These latter images have been bolstered by the language emanating from DHS, whose official narrative over the past weeks has reduced the complex protests in Portland to a simple struggle between federal law enforcement personnel on the defensive against “violent anarchists” and “rioters.”

The “battle of Portland,” like most real and imagined “war zones,” has its frontline as well as rear areas. Recent critiques of the militarization of the police have tended to concentrate on the frontlines, typically focusing on tactics and equipment linked to the “counterinsurgency” campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Historical analogies from the Cold War are also invoked to highlight a similar phenomenon from an earlier era. But to take the analogy one step further, contemporary counterinsurgencies have increasingly been fought in the virtual space.

In the absence of success on the ground, winning the narrative takes precedence. In practice, emphasizing the virtual battlefield over the real battlefield has very little effect on the frontlines. Instead, the principal audience is the home front, with a primary aim of maintaining sufficient public support for the conflict so that defeat can be indefinitely postponed, thereby avoiding the political costs associated with the ultimate disgrace of losing.

Winning in the virtual space has traditionally relied on a combination of, first, demonizing the adversary and, second, making exaggerated claims of progress.

Achieving the first requires inventive name calling (or branding) and the highlighting of bad behavior but can also have the negative side effect of provoking hate which can then lead to abuses. Achieving the second necessitates emphasizing positive trends and statistics and downplaying, ignoring, or explaining away the negative ones, which can then lead to a distorted picture of reality that then serves as the basis for policy decisions. In other words, both methods contribute to counterproductive policy outcomes.

And that’s precisely what we’ve seen from DHS in recent weeks, as its failure to win “the battle of Portland” on the ground has led it to increasingly extreme efforts to prevail over the narrative. Within the US Government, DHS took the lead in crafting a narrative about the protests and violence in Portland, beginning on July 16 with the release of a long statement covering events up to that point, followed by a short statement three days later. The narrative campaign then picked up in earnest on July 21, when DHS adopted the practice of issuing a daily bulletin entitled “Portland Riots Read-Out.”

There are two ways of evaluating DHS reporting. One is to compare DHS’s reports with other publicly available sources. The other is to examine the DHS reports themselves looking for dominant themes, internal inconsistencies, shifts in terminology, use of euphemisms, and so forth. Conducting a “propaganda analysis” of DHS reports yields important insights about internal policy priorities and policy changes. Even the date when the DHS daily reporting started reveals a shift in information policy, reflecting the pressure felt by officials to take a more active role in framing the narrative.

Admittedly, to rely on official briefings as one’s primary source; to employ the official terminology and therefore accept, in some measure, the government’s framing of the problem, if only unconsciously; to seal one’s analysis off from the mass of images and eyewitness accounts presented by actors other than DHS is to enter the distorted world of the government official. For the analyst and historian, entering this world and looking at events through the prism of officials is essential to understanding why things happened in the way they did. For the critic and activist, appreciating the ideology embedded in the official discourse is necessary if fundamental reform of a broken system is the objective.

DHS’s Narrative on Portland

So, what does the DHS reporting on Portland reveal? The most noticeable aspect is the terminology employed, particularly the discursive emphasis on “violent anarchists” and “rioters”—with very few references to “protesters.” In the July 16 DHS press release, “violent anarchists” appears 72 times. By contrast, the term “mob” was used 8 times and “riots” twice, with only a single reference each to “protest” and ”protester” and none to “demonstrators.” Three days later, another statement was released which used the term “violent anarchists” ten times with no reference to “protesters.” In every subsequent press release, “violent anarchists” was used at least once, although “rioter” became the term that recurred most frequently. Then “violent anarchists”’ stopped being used on July 30. Instead, there was only a single mention of “anarchists;” but the word “rioter” was used 11 times, with one reference to “violent opportunists” and none to “protesters.” A day later, DHS reported the “first night” of “relative peace.” No references were made to “anarchists.” As of August 1 there was also no mention of “anarchists” despite a reference to ”minor incidents of malicious activity.” Subsequent statements have similarly avoided references to “anarchists” and “violent anarchists”. One can therefore see a direct correlation between the announcement of a “cooperation agreement” whereby state and local police would effectively replace the DHS presence, and the disappearance of the “violent anarchist” terminology. DHS stopped posting daily press releases after 7 August. Curiously, in the last of its consecutive daily releases since 21 July, “violent anarchists” was employed once again, despite not being used for over a week.

The July 16 press release is particularly noteworthy as it constitutes DHS’s first effort to craft an overarching narrative of a city “under siege” by “violent anarchists” pitted against “brave law enforcement officers” while “local political leaders refuse to restore order”—the overarching framing that DHS then increasingly propagated in its messaging. This language makes the situation in Portland a battle of symbols, with the federal courthouse representing “justice”—“to attack it is to attack America,” DHS declares. Prior to July 16, DHS had issued only a single press release discussing what it more blandly called the “civil unrest” in Portland. A July 5 press release simply referred to detaining 8 “people” for acts they had committed the previous night, with one suspect who was arrested “armed with machetes.” Interestingly, the chronology issued by DHS on July 16 discusses the unrest on July 4 in very different terms, referring to “[a]round 1,000 violent anarchists” and “multiple individuals” “seen carrying rifles, including the driver of a vehicle who attempted to strike a Portland Police Bureau officer with his car.” DHS’s characterization was beginning to diverge notably from descriptions by other authorities: a July 5 Portland Police Bureau (PPB) press release mentioned only one man “carrying a rifle … Several demonstrators surrounded him, but left him alone and eventually he left.” Another man who ”illegally possessed” a loaded pistol was taken into custody. No mention was made by the PPB of an attempt to strike an officer with his car, much less a driver armed with a rifle—in contrast with DHS’s description.

As DHS’s rhetoric escalated, one term featured more and more prominently: “violent anarchists.” This language reflected a departure from accepted DHS terminology. Thus, while DHS was ratcheting up its use of that phrase externally, on July 16 DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis published internally a briefing on “recent violence in Portland.” In this document, later leaked, the terms “violent opportunists” and “anarchist extremists” were defined and employed in relation to the “regularity of violence amidst lawful protests in Portland since 26 May.” Both terms had previously been used and explicitly defined in DHS intelligence documents; but there was not a single reference to “violent anarchists.” According to a search of the DHS website, the only other time “violent anarchists” had been previously used by DHS was on July 1, when Acting Secretary Chad Wolf announced the establishment of the “Protecting American Communities Task Force.” Revealingly, on July 25, at the height of the Portland protests, Acting Under Secretary for the Office of Intelligence and Analysis Brian Murphy (recently reassigned) circulated a memo stating that for internal analyses dealing with Portland, the term “violent opportunists” was to be replaced by “Violent ANTIFA Anarchists Inspired (VAAI).” Leaving aside the accuracy of the original terminology, this new development showcases a highly likely example of politicizing DHS intelligence.

For DHS, rhetorically linking the protests to “ANTIFA” and “anarchists” was part of a broader pattern. In late May, Trump stated: ”The memory of George Floyd is being dishonored by rioters, looters, and anarchists. The violence and vandalism is being led by Antifa and other radical left-wing groups.” On July 26, Trump tweeted: “The ‘protesters’ are actually anarchists who hate our Country.” This followed numerous other references to “anarchists” by Trump and other senior administration officials attempting to delegitimize the Portland protests and justify the use of force. And the rhetorical barrage continued: In recent testimony before the House Judiciary committee, Attorney General William Barr commented regarding Portland: “What unfolds nightly around the courthouse cannot reasonably be called a protest; it is, by any objective measure, an assault on the Government of the United States.” On July 31, Trump again stated: “And you had radical anarchists. You had horrible people. You had agitators. They weren’t protesters. They might have been protesters, but the ones that were the problem were absolute anarchists and, in many cases, professionals.” The escalating emphasis on characterizing those in Portland as “anarchists” became central to the Trump administration’s attempt to define, then win, the narrative contest.

Another theme that comes across in DHS press releases is that local officials were “refusing to enforce the law,” that the measures they were taking to “restore order” were insufficient, and that therefore an increased federal presence was necessary. For example, a July 27 press release described a “lack of state and local leadership” and stated that the “failure of city officials to maintain law and order necessitate DHS’ increased presence.” Yet, the statistics DHS itself has released citing the number of “violent anarchists” and crowd sizes calls this narrative into question, with the federal “surge” coinciding with a subsequent escalation of the protests rather than leading to a de-escalation.

After weeks of protests, culminating from Friday 24 July through Sunday 26 July, DHS announced several days later it had reached an agreement with local authorities to begin drawing down their presence in the city. Following the July 29 announcement, DHS stated that the protests on July 30 were peaceful — “a stark difference from previous nights” — and that no arrests were made. This was attributed to the “first night of state and local law enforcement support.” Yet the press releases in the days following the drawdown announcement were careful to note that “DHS’s enhanced posture” is “still protecting federal property in the city” and “will remain for the time being.” Articulating this last point conveys the impression that DHS did not retreat and therefore any decline in violent activity could not be linked to a change in DHS policy. Instead, it deflects blame away from the DHS presence and reinforces the narrative that state and local officials were to blame.

This effort to deflect blame has continued. On August 4, DHS posted a Myths vs Facts statement about Portland on its website. The narrative constructed is a highly politicized one. Similar to earlier press releases it noted that there has been “no reduction in federal presence” and that they remain “at augmented level.” The “downward trend” in violence around the federal courthouse is attributed to Oregon Governor Kate Brown’s “finally” agreeing to “step up and work with federal authorities.” DHS claims that attributing the decline in violence to the “less visible” federal presence is a “myth.” Instead, the violence had been ongoing for months and the federal presence increased in response. Not only does DHS avoid distinguishing between the size and intensity of the protests before and after the federal “surge,” but the statement then goes on to blame the “media” for not paying attention to the earlier violence. The politicized nature of the statement is also clearly evident by its making a claim unrelated to the protests blaming increased homicides in Portland to Mayor Ted Wheeler’s “decision to disband” the PPB’s “Gun Violence Reduction Team among widespread calls to defund police departments across the country.”

Among the many remarkable aspects of the DHS press releases are what they don’t say. For one thing, the essence of the Portland protests is reduced to a simple struggle between the “diligent” and “honorable” federal law enforcement officers on the one hand and “violent anarchists” on the other, with the peaceful protester making only rare appearances amid long lists of criminal activity committed by those described as “rioters.” No references whatsoever are made to the “Wall of Moms” or “Wall of Veterans;” and no acknowledgment is offered of the protesters’ grievances, much less any admission of abuses by the federal authorities themselves. Of course, none of this is surprising. It is essentially a “logical impossibility” that bureaucracies whose purpose is to solve a problem would be capable of admitting they are making the problem worse. Moreover, when compared to other types of official reports, including those of the PPB, there is a remarkable degree of blatant political rhetoric embedded in the DHS press releases, evidenced by the terminology used and the framing of the narrative: for instance, whereas the DHS press releases referred to “violent anarchists” and “rioters,” the PPB simply referred to “people.” In addition, numerous factual claims made in DHS’s press releases are questionable and should be investigated to determine how many errors exist in the official record—and whether these were the result of bureaucratic error or a deliberate attempt at spreading false or misleading information. The DHS’s labelling acts such as defacement of a building as being caused by “violent anarchists” is one concern here.

As more internal documentation becomes available, the full extent of the politicization of DHS will be laid bare. In the meantime, a close examination of openly available documentation regarding the Portland protests already provides plentiful evidence of the Trump administration’s use of DHS to demonize and undermine political critics.

Image: Samuel Corum/Getty

 

About the Author(s)

Jeffrey Michaels

Visiting Fellow with the Changing Character of War Centre at Pembroke College, Oxford; former Senior Lecturer in Defense Studies at King's College London; formerly served as an official with NATO and the US Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter (@jmichael424).