Thursday, 24 Sep 2020

US House panel probes DHS office over Portland protest monitoring

Reports have detailed DHS intelligence reports on journalists and monitoring of peaceful protesters’ messages.

The United States House Intelligence Committee has launched an investigation into the Department of Homeland Security’s intelligence office, including its actions during protests in Portland, Oregon and its involvement in other anti-racism demonstrations across the country.

In a letter to DHS officials on Monday, Committee Chairman Adam Schiff wrote that “the reporting regarding the monitoring of peaceful protesters, creating and disseminating intelligence reports about journalists and protesters, and potential exploitation of electronic devices is deeply troubling.”

The letter referred to a series of reports in US media last week that said DHS Intelligence and Analysis Office (I&A) had compiled “intelligence reports” on journalists covering the nightly protests in Portland using a government system meant to share information about suspected “terrorists” and violent actors.

News reports also detailed that the office monitored messages sent between non-violent protesters on encrypted apps.

The US has seen largely peaceful protests nationwide since the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after an officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes in Minneapolis in May.

Protests in cities have at times erupted into arson and violence, and federal officers sent into the Portland in June have repeatedly clashed with crowds targeting the federal court there.

The Trump administration had said the federal agents were deployed to the city to protect federal property and monuments. 

Schiff wrote that I&A appeared to be “using an aggressive and novel legal interpretation” to justify collecting and disseminating intelligence “regarding a wide range of ‘threats’ to damage or destroy public monuments, memorials and statues – no matter how minor”. 

He added the office’s “reinterpretation” of its authority was “chilling and inconsistent with constitutional and other legal protections Americans deserve and expect”.

‘Violent Antifa Anarchist Inspired’

The House investigation indicates that Democrats will use congressional authority to investigate alleged efforts by the Trump administration to demonise protesters and deploy federal personnel in law enforcement operations despite opposition from local mayors and governors.

In his letter, Schiff also noted that Brian Murphy, the head of I&A who had been reportedly reassigned on Saturday, had appeared to provide “incomplete and potentially misleading” information to committee staff during a previous briefing. 

In a previous letter sent to Murphy by Senate Intelligence Committee Democrats on Friday, they wrote that he had stated on July 23 that his office “had neither collected nor exploited or analyzed information obtained from the devices or accounts of protesters or detainees”.

The Intelligence Committee on Monday, as part of its investigation, also requested detailed intelligence reporting documents that informed a July 25 recommendation by Murphy for DHS reports to refer to anarchist-related Portland protester as “Violent Antifa Anarchists Inspired”, instead of “Violent Opportunists”.

In his letter to DHS, Schiff also requested that acting department intelligence chief Horace Jen, Murphy and several other DHS officials, including intelligence officials, give interviews to the committee this month.

Schiff added that if the department did not produce the witnesses and documents he requested, he would consider issuing subpoenas.

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