WASHINGTON — From the earliest days of the recent protests against police brutality and racism, some top federal law enforcement officials viewed the demonstrators with alarm and called for an aggressive federal response that two months later continues to escalate.
A memo from the deputy director of the F.B.I., dated June 2, demanded an immediate mobilization as protests gathered after George Floyd’s death while in police custody a week earlier. David L. Bowdich, the F.B.I.’s No. 2, declared the situation “a national crisis,” and wrote that in addition to investigating “violent protesters, instigators” and “inciters,” bureau leaders should collect information with “robust social media exploitation teams” and examine what appeared to be “highly organized behavior.”
Mr. Bowdich suggested that the bureau could make use of the Hobbs Act, put into place in the 1940s to punish racketeering in labor groups, to charge the protesters.
“When 9/11 occurred, our folks did not quibble about whether there was danger ahead for them,” he wrote, telling aides that the continuing coronavirus pandemic should not hold them back. “They ran head-on into peril.”
The memo came after a weekend in which protests gave way to looting in some cities and the day after federal agents forcibly cleared peaceful protesters from the White House so President Trump could walk through Lafayette Square. Since then, the federal response has become a focal point of the Trump administration and of Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign. The Bowdich memo suggests agencies need little prodding to adopt the president’s forceful posture.
“Think differently, out of the box,” the memo demanded.
On Tuesday, Attorney General William P. Barr took the same tone, saying strife in Portland, Ore., was not a protest at all, but “an assault on the government of the United States.”
“Remarkably, the response from many in the media and local elected offices to this organized assault has been to blame the federal government,” Mr. Barr told the House Judiciary Committee. “To state what should be obvious, peaceful protesters do not throw explosives into federal courthouses.”
Privately, domestic intelligence agents are uncertain about the root causes of those actions. Another internal government memo, from Department of Homeland Security intelligence officers, indicated that even as federal agents in camouflage deployed to quell the unrest in Portland, the administration had little understanding of what it was facing.
The memo tried to put the recent conflict into historical context, describing how “anarchist extremists” have committed crimes in the Pacific Northwest for years and asserting that “sustained violence against government personnel and facilities” had longstanding roots.
But even as it laid out a timeline of violence extending back to 2015, the intelligence briefing, dated July 16, admitted, “We have low confidence in our assessment” when it comes to the present day.
“We lack insight into the motives for the most recent attacks,” it read.
‘They’ve Become the Story’
At the end of May, as protests against police brutality and racism sprung up across the country, Mr. Trump decided the unrest was the work of “antifa,” a leaderless coalition of people who oppose fascism but have at times used vandalism and violence to make their points.
Since then, federal prosecutors have brought charges against demonstrators across the country for crimes that would typically be handled locally. In Delaware and Alabama, prosecutors brought charges against people who each smashed the window of a police car. In Ohio, prosecutors charged someone for burning a parking-attendant booth.
In Missouri, one man was charged for Facebook posts that authorities said were inciting violence. The charges were later dropped.
“I don’t think this type of charge would have been filed under any other administration,” said Marleen Menendez Suarez, a lawyer for the Missouri man, Michael Avery.
Federal law enforcement has a duty to investigate the organizing of crimes across state lines, said John McKay, a former U.S. attorney appointed under President George W. Bush. Federal crimes around banks or guns are also common targets. But, he said, a broken window or robberies would typically be left to the local authorities.
“The feds shouldn’t come in unless there is a clear indication of federal crime and a federal interest,” he said.
Nowhere has the federal response been as aggressive and obvious as Portland, where for years now leftist groups and white extremists have faced off. Since Mr. Floyd’s death, protesters have held demonstrations every night for 60 consecutive days, and those gatherings have grown in size and intensity since federal authorities arrived. Some in the crowds have lobbed commercial-grade fireworks toward the officers and pointed lasers at the faces of federal agents. Agents have clubbed demonstrators with batons, used tear gas indiscriminately and forced protesters into unmarked vans, prompting investigations by the inspectors general for the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice.
The feud between the Trump administration and the local officials has grown so tense that on Monday night, Portland’s mayor, Ted Wheeler, called for a meeting with Department of Homeland Security officials to discuss “a cease-fire” with his own federal government.
On Tuesday, Mr. Barr was adamant that the administration had a right and a duty to protect federal property and defend its agents.
But outside the administration, a consensus is emerging: The deployment of the federal agents is perpetuating the unrest.
“They’ve become the story,” John Sandweg, a former acting general counsel for the Department of Homeland Security, said of the federal deployments. “The protests are feeding off their presence.”
In New York, F.B.I. agents were deployed to guard New York Police Department precincts for a few days during the height of the protests in early June.
Last month, the F.B.I.’s elite hostage rescue team was deployed to stand by in Washington, an unnecessary show of public force, some agents say they thought, that miscast a lethal unit that conducts the bureau’s most dangerous missions. When a group of F.B.I. agents in Washington knelt in front of protesters last month, some former agents saw cowardice while others applauded the de-escalation effort.
The F.B.I. referred to a statement issued in early June that said agents were committed to defending First Amendment rights.
‘Low Confidence in Our Assessment’
But de-escalation tactics have been the exception. Over the Fourth of July weekend, after Mr. Trump directed federal agencies to strengthen security at statues and federal property, the Department of Homeland Security put about 2,000 agents from various agencies on standby and deployed more than 200 tactical agents to multiple cities, but many of them outside a single federal courthouse in Portland, already covered with graffiti and marred by broken windows.
In the July 16 intelligence briefing memo, the department concluded the “sustained violence against government personnel and facilities in Portland, Ore., since May reflects the enduring threat environment in the region since at least 2015.” The memo included a timeline of violent episodes in Seattle and Olympia, Wash., as well as in Portland. (The timeline specified two episodes involving “white supremacist extremists.”)
But the memo, prepared by the Counterterrorism Mission Center, also admitted that “we have low confidence in our assessment that sustained violence against government personnel and facilities in Portland, Ore., since May reflects the enduring threat environment in the region because we lack insight into the motives for the most recent attacks.”
The agency may have been raising questions about the accuracy of its findings, but its leaders have shown no such qualms. Last week, Chad F. Wolf, the acting secretary of homeland security, referred to protests in Portland in 2018 that prompted the department to temporarily shut down a detention center run by its Immigration Customs Enforcement.
“There’s a little bit of a pattern here that obviously I’m concerned about,” Mr. Wolf said.
The agency does not appear ready to pull back its forces. The U.S. Marshals Service said Monday it had identified 100 officials to send to Portland to relieve or back up marshals at the courthouse. The Department of Homeland Security is also considering sending more than three dozen Customs and Border Protection agents to the city to back up the tactical agents from ICE and BORTAC, the Border Patrol’s equivalent of a S.W.A.T. team, as well as the Federal Protective Service.
Out Into the Streets
The deployment has not only outraged local officials who have asked federal agents to leave, but it has raised questions about the authority that federal officers are operating under.
The Department of Homeland Security has cited a law that permits federal agents to “conduct investigations” into crimes against federal property or officers. But in recent days, officers have left the grounds of the courthouse in Portland and pursued protesters through the streets, firing tear gas and pepper balls, advancing to areas where the courthouse was no longer visible.
The department also sent a tactical team to stand by in Seattle last week, hours after department officials told the mayor there no such deployment would occur. After pushback from those local officials, the administration told the Seattle government on Tuesday the team had left the city.
Federal agencies generally reach an agreement with local governments before dispatching tactical agents to respond to local crime, and an internal Department of Homeland Security memo warned that deployed teams were not trained to confront the unrest. Department officials have said the training the teams received to handle crowds of migrants at the border and riots in detention facilities have prepared them for Portland.
Chuck Wexler, the director of the Police Executive Research Forum, said federal officials could be engaging in a dialogue with activist leaders and local politicians during the day to calm tensions ahead of nighttime protests.
The opposite is occurring.
“I don’t know who’s benefiting from this,” Mr. Wexler said.
Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Adam Goldman reported from Washington, Sergio Olmos from Portland, Ore., and Mike Baker from Seattle. William K. Rashbaum contributed reporting from New York.