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“Disturbing And Demoralizing”: DHS Employees Are Worried The Portland Protest Response Is Destroying Their Agency’s Reputation

"We have a lot of work ahead in terms of repairing the public’s trust."

Alex Milan Tracy / Sipa USA via AP

Federal officers launch tear gas and other crowd control munitions near the federal courthouse in Portland, July 20.

The Department of Homeland Security’s response to anti–police brutality protests in Portland, Oregon, has disturbed and angered many employees, who called the deployment of the federal force an unusual maneuver that could do long-term damage to the agency’s reputation.

In recent days, Oregon leaders, including the governor, have called on DHS officers to leave Portland as nightly protests have grown in size. Videos captured by protesters and media have shown the consistent use of tear gas and other "less than lethal" weapons from officers guarding the Mark O. Hatfield Courthouse in downtown Portland amid a backdrop of federal officers outfitted in camouflage snatching people off the street in unmarked vehicles.

The Trump administration and senior DHS officials have said the federal response in Portland — where officers from US Customs and Border Protection and ICE are deployed — is necessary to protect the federal courthouse from damage, and they have called some protesters violent criminals. The situation in Portland, they’ve added, is unique and requires a federal response due to local leaders’ apparent unwillingness to help protect federal property.

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But conversations with 17 DHS employees, all of whom requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, reveal that many at the agency disagree with the show of force. Some called for an investigation, while others said they feared the long-term consequences for the agency’s reputation.

“Despite working at DHS, I watch and learn about every day’s new descent into lawlessness and authoritarianism just like the rest of the world,” one employee said. “Being a part of this corrupt regime, even as I play no role in the decision-making process, leaves me disgusted by my employer and saddened for my country.”

Alex Milan Tracy / Sipa USA via AP

Moms with interlocking arms stand between protesters and a fence blocking access to the entrance of the federal courthouse in Portland, July 19.

Many employees believe the deployment was directly connected to President Donald Trump’s reelection efforts and was politicizing the agency.

“This administration’s utterly transparent fearmongering of sending federal officers out against peaceful protesters in Portland and Chicago has no purpose other than to support Trump’s reelection bid. It is blatantly unconstitutional and an embarrassment to the agency and the career civil servants who work here,” said one employee.

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Another DHS employee said they’d never seen anything like what's happening in Portland in their many years at the agency.

“We have a lot of work ahead in terms of repairing the public’s trust,” the employee said.

Another staffer called the deployment “disturbing and demoralizing.”

“Such actions appear to do less to restore law and order than they do to deepen the public’s distrust of DHS,” they said.

The DHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the internal concerns.

The Trump administration has sent members from DHS’s Special Response Team, as well as members of the Border Patrol Tactical Unit, to support officers guarding the federal courthouse in downtown Portland. While senior officials have said the officers on the ground have been trained and have the authority to make arrests tied to alleged damage to the facility, others in the department said it was a mistake.

“I did not sign up nor was I trained to be a street cop,” said one DHS employee who had not been deployed but had reservations of others being sent there. “Civil societies have immigration laws that need to be enforced, but that does not mean we should be used as this delusional president’s personal attack dog just because we happen to be available.”

Another DHS employee said the way the department was going about the effort “absolutely hurts the reputation of the agency. Most people have no clue what we do, but now they will have this ham-fisted response in their mind as they think about CBP.”

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On Friday, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Oregon sued the DHS and US Marshals Service in hopes of blocking the agents from arresting, dispersing, or detaining legal observers and journalists.

Last week, the US attorney for Oregon called on the inspector general to investigate some elements of the response.

“The events in Portland raise serious questions concerning both the use of DHS law enforcement assets and their conduct,” said one DHS employee. “The DHS OIG should immediately open an inspection and investigation because all accounts suggest the law enforcement surge strays from DHS’s mission and is potentially unlawful.”

Former agency officials also echoed the fears about the long-term impact of the federal response in Portland.

“When the current administration and the leadership in DHS insert DHS in the middle of this — to protect statues and to bring ‘order’ to Portland — it is so damaging to the brands of the agencies. It guts public safety,” said John Sandweg, a former senior DHS official in the Obama administration. “It’s devastating what this administration has done.”

Hamed Aleaziz is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.

Contact Hamed Aleaziz at hamed.aleaziz@buzzfeed.com.

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