Agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) were dressed in plainclothes and embedded in Portland racial justice protests that followed the presidential inauguration, according to an investigation by The New York Times.
The newspaper’s investigation found that the FBI had officers in the protests walking alongside activists, recording the scenes of the day and alerting local police to potential arrests.
The agents were initially deployed in Portland in July 2020 to protect a federal courthouse after protesters had set things on fire, bashed windows and shot fireworks at law enforcement in the area. However, the federal agents’ role quickly increased to cover areas typically under the jurisdiction of local police, sparking some internal concerns.
Kieran L. Ramsey, a special agent who leads Portland’s FBI field office, told the Times that his office aimed to target “violent instigators who exploit legitimate, peaceful protests and engage in violations of federal law.”
But officials who spoke to the Times said that the agents’ actions at the protest drew concerns from the Justice Department and the bureau itself regarding the American public’s right to protest against the government.
“These are all insidious tactics that chill First Amendment expression and erode trust with local officials,” Bobbin Singh, executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center, said, per the Times.
The newspaper added that, while an FBI informant was in the crowd on Jan. 6, there has thus far been no evidence to indicate that similar tactics were used for the rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol earlier this year.
While the FBI’s policies allow for a wide reaching range of mechanisms to address crimes and issues of national security, the agency aims to prioritize nonintrusive strategies that do not undermine legitimate protests, the Times noted.
“The Department of Justice needs to explain to me why it deployed those teams and provide a real record of their activities,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told the newspaper. “What were they there for? Were they there primarily to chill peaceful protesters, or were they there to protect federal property?”
The Hill has reached out to the FBI for comment.
by Monique Beals – 12/22/21 2:15 PM ET