Before Portland, Trump’s Shock Troops Went After Border Activists

The purported threat of antifa was long used to justify militarized targeting of immigration activists. Now it’s being used against protesters in Portland.

U.S. federal agents use crowd control methods to disperse protesters at the Multnomah County Justice Center in Portland, Ore., on July 23, 2020.
U.S. federal agents use crowd control methods to disperse protesters at the Multnomah County Justice Center in Portland, Ore., on July 23, 2020. Photo: Ankur Dholakia/AFP via Getty Images

Images of Border Patrol agents in military-style tactical gear grabbing protesters off the street in Portland, Oregon, have drawn condemnation from Democratic lawmakers, who have described the teams as “secret police.” For immigration advocates like Kaji Douša, a senior pastor at Park Avenue Christian Church in New York City, there is nothing secret — or particularly new — about them.

As the co-chair of the New Sanctuary Coalition, an immigrant rights organization, Douša knows what it’s like to have the weight of the Department of Homeland Security come down on you — she has a growing stack of internal DHS documents, produced in ongoing litigation surrounding the agency’s surveillance of her and dozens of lawyers, journalists, and asylum advocates who were targeted in a sweeping DHS spying operation during the 2018 midterm elections. “We were perceived to be radicals,” Douša told The Intercept. “A lot of white people turned away because it wasn’t them, but now that it’s them in Portland, everybody’s like, ‘Oh, this is crazy.’”

The surveillance was just one politicized DHS operation among many that have taken place under the Trump administration. The same Border Patrol tactical teams currently on the ground in Oregon were also deployed to provide muscle and a visible show of strength for Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers conducting a crackdown on New York and other so-called sanctuary cities earlier this year. During the enforcement blitz, an ICE officer dressed in tactical gear was spotted knocking on doors in a Bronx apartment building with a rifle propped against his shoulder. In Brooklyn, a team of ICE officers shot a man in the face while attempting to make an arrest. As The Intercept reported in March, the escalated enforcement came as New York City was becoming the global epicenter for the coronavirus pandemic and led to the filling of local jails, which in turn became hot spots for Covid-19.

“We were raising the alarm about it,” Douša said. “It feels like we’ve been screaming into a vacuum.”

Long before DHS deployed masked paramilitary agents to the Pacific Northwest, the agency was directing its intelligence efforts against opponents of the president’s policies on the southern border, citing the coordinated circulation of public information, tweets, and potential vandalism as a precursor to extremist violence and domestic terrorism.

Long before DHS deployed masked paramilitary agents to the Pacific Northwest, the agency was directing its intelligence efforts against opponents of the president’s policies on the southern border.

In the summer of 2018, when the Trump administration was taking children from their parents by the thousands in an effort to ward off asylum-seekers at the southern border, a New York City-based data artist designed a tool for scraping LinkedIn that would collect and share information that ICE personnel had posted about themselves online. Alarm bells went off inside DHS.

“Multiple incidents of doxing of DHS personnel and facilities could result in actualized violence against DHS employees by violent extremist actors,” the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis warned in a June 29, 2018 intelligence note, describing the actors in question as “individuals vehemently opposed to purported or perceived DHS actions regarding immigration policy.”

While protests against the administration’s family separation policy were massive, widespread, and diverse, the note went on to say that “the current publicity surrounding federal immigration policy most likely will resonate with anarchist extremists or individuals who self-identify or subscribe to anti-fascist (ANTIFA) anarchist extremist ideology.” The DHS intelligence office reported with “medium confidence” that “if any criminal acts were to be conducted by these domestic terrorists, these acts would most likely be limited to destruction of critical infrastructure.”


In Portland, Questions Swirl Around Local Police’s Coordination With Federal Officers

The intelligence note is among a trove of law enforcement documents that were recently hacked and posted online under the title BlueLeaks. The leaked documents reveal several instances in recent years of DHS and its subagencies circulating warnings about a dangerous anarchist or antifa element constituting a domestic terrorist threat. The documents bolster past reporting that has repeatedly demonstrated the agency’s targeting of leftist opponents of the Trump administration’s immigration and border policies, which set the stage for the federal law enforcement campaign the president is now seeking to take nationwide.

The materials are particularly noteworthy in light of recent events in Portland, in which DHS has cited the actions of “violent anarchists” as a justification for its show of force on the city’s streets, pointed to doxxing as the reason that agents’ names are hidden from the public, and where the same DHS office that has hyped a threat from the left is now overseeing the intelligence work driving arrests on the ground.

The Intercept sent DHS a list of questions for this story, including clarification on how the agency is determining the political ideology of individual protesters accused of violence on the ground in Portland — earlier this month, for example, acting DHS secretary Chad Wolf issued a press release blaming “violent anarchists” for 70 incidents of “lawless destruction and violence” in Portland (nearly all of the incidents involved graffiti or property destruction). The agency did not respond.

When considering the Trump administration’s actions in Portland, “it’s impossible not to recall the Department of Homeland Security’s targeting of activists and civil society organizations on the border for surveillance and criminal investigation,” said Brian Griffey, a researcher at Amnesty International. In 2019, Griffey was the lead investigator on a report that documented how DHS engaged in a sweeping, multi-year campaign targeting human rights defenders, attorneys, and journalists working on the border. “To label these political activists terrorists, it’s just the same in my mind as how they labeled activists and immigration lawyers on the border as criminals and smugglers,” he said.

Having previously conducted human rights research in eastern Ukraine, Griffey has found himself increasingly concerned with the direction the administration now appears to be taking. “A lot of what’s happening here seems incredibly familiar,” he said. “From little green men, to the encouragement of far-right protesters to stage armed demonstrations outside Capitol buildings in regional areas. As we get into election season this is a recipe for trouble if they don’t roll back the rhetoric and stop threatening civil society.”

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 11:  U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), officers arrest an undocumented Mexican immigrant during a raid in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn on April 11, 2018 in New York City. New York is considered a "sanctuary city" for undocumented immigrants, and ICE receives little or no cooperation from local law enforcement.  ICE said that officers arrested 225 people for violation of immigration laws during the 6-day operation, the largest in New York City in recent years. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers arrest an undocumented Mexican immigrant during a raid in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn on April 11, 2018 in New York City.

Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

Political Enemies

There is no legal definition of a sanctuary city. For the Trump administration, the term has typically meant ostensibly liberal jurisdictions where local law enforcement has pulled back on some element of cooperation with ICE — though ICE still operates in those cities, and in places like New York, a low-level brush with the New York Police Department can still lead to deportation. President Donald Trump has repeatedly identified such jurisdictions as his political enemies. The federal law enforcement posture that has garnered so much attention in the past month is largely an extension of that view and is being rolled out alongside a reelection effort framed around the notion that leftist activists and political leaders are in cahoots to destroy the country.

As Douša and Griffey noted, much of what’s happened in recent weeks, from the DHS operations themselves to the units involved to the government’s characterization of the perceived threat, would be familiar to anyone who’s had a close eye on the border in recent years.

On January 17, 2018, a specialized Border Patrol unit conducted a raid on a humanitarian aid station in the unincorporated border community of Ajo, Arizona. Scott Warren, a geographer and volunteer with the faith-based organization No More Deaths and several other humanitarian groups was arrested along with two young undocumented men from Central American who were attempting to cross one of the deadliest stretches of the Sonoran Desert. A Border Patrol agent who later admitted that he did not know how to secure a warrant for a wiretap had conducted a multi-month “investigation” into the aid facility. The U.S. Attorney’s Office pursued the case aggressively, hitting Warren with two federal felony counts of harboring and one count of conspiracy. He faced up to 20 years in prison. The office brought nine other federal cases against No More Deaths volunteers accused of leaving jugs of water for migrants crossing the desert on public lands.

Trump administration prosecutors spent two years trying to lock Warren away. When the first trial ended in a hung jury, they brought another. The second jury returned a verdict of not guilty after just two hours of deliberations. Throughout Warren’s ordeal, prosecutors alleged that No More Deaths and groups like it were effectively a border-wide anarchist conspiracy network aimed at breaking U.S. immigration laws.

Warren’s case was among the first clear signs that the Trump administration was willing to devote considerable resources to aggressive and politically symbolic law enforcement activity in matters related to the president’s border agenda.

While Warren was able to avoid time behind bars during his brush with the Trump administration’s politicized brand of border law enforcement, others were not so fortunate.

On August 3, 2018, ICE agents in Texas arrested 18-year-old Sergio Salazar at an Occupy ICE encampment in San Antonio, Texas. As The Intercept reported last year, Salazar’s tweets landed them on the radar of the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), which forwarded the posts to an FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force in San Antonio that included ICE personnel. Federal authorities surveilled Salazar and the Occupy ICE encampment for weeks. Tactical agents in masks not unlike those in Portland visited the camp at night. One day after Salazar’s protections against deportation under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals expired, an ICE team moved in and placed them under arrest. In an evidence packet ICE compiled to support Salazar’s deportation, which Salazar shared with The Intercept, DHS argued that the recent high school graduate’s social media revealed their affiliation with the “Anarchist Extremist Group ‘ANTIFA.’” Salazar was locked up for 43 days before being deported — “banished,” in their words — from the only country they had ever known.

While much of the country was reacting in horror at the family separation policy, U.S. Customs and Border Protection was reporting “an increase in social media threats targeting DHS personnel.

The BlueLeaks documents show that Salazar’s case was referenced in a report circulated by a law enforcement fusion center in Colorado the following year: “On 03 August 2018, an 18-year-old Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient was arrested by the FBI after posting instructional videos for making bombs to kill ICE agents. He also posted several anonymous messages online against ICE agents.” Salazar was not arrested by the FBI nor were they ever charged or accused of a crime. The source of the fusion center’s reporting was an article published by the Center for Immigration Studies, an organization with longstanding ties to Trump’s top immigration architect, White House adviser Stephen Miller — the Southern Poverty Law Center includes the organization among its designated hate groups. CIS rejects the characterization.

The author of the CIS post was Todd Bensman, a former senior intelligence analyst at the Texas Department of Public Safety who, according to biographies on CIS’s website and his own, had a supervisory role at DPS that “frequently” involved sharing intelligence with JTTFs and ICE at the time that DPS shared Salazar’s tweets with FBI. Bensman left DPS for CIS the month of Salazar’s arrest, where he proceeded to write multiple articles and posted a video about the national security threat that people like Salazar posed, drawing comparisons to “ISIS propagandists who become the targets of hellfire missiles overseas because their incitement has proven so mortally effective.”

Bensman told The Intercept he was aware of Salazar’s case during his tenure at DPS, but that he went to “great pains” to compartmentalize his work in law enforcement from the public facing reporting he produces at CIS. Though he believes federal law enforcement would not have devoted the resources to the Salazar case that it did absent a serious threat, he acknowledged that he did not have access to the case file ICE presented laying out its purported evidence to support that claim. “If there was exculpatory information about that investigation, I certainly would have written about it,” Bensman told The Intercept.

Salazar’s life was upended entirely by the investigation Bensman’s previous office set in motion. From an apartment in Mexico, they wrote: “Despite the hateful behavior and writings of the DHS and its employees against a teenage me, I still believe a better world is possible and still hold in my heart a vision of a world where migration is not criminalized or regulated through violence.”

The BlueLeaks documents show that on June 22, 2018, while much of the country was reacting in horror at the Trump administration’s family separation policy, and Salazar and their friends were occupying the ICE facility in Texas, U.S. Customs and Border Protection was reporting “an increase in social media threats targeting DHS personnel.” The threats included “advocating violence against ICE officials and destruction of government property, the release of DHS officials’ personally identifiable information (PII), and the release of DHS facility locations.”

For the most part, DHS facility locations, like the details government employees post on their LinkedIn pages, are publicly available information. CBP acknowledged that “while doxxing itself may be constitutionally protected,” the government would continue to monitor “incidents of doxing where there is a reasonable belief that the doxed information could lead to violent domestic extremist activity.” In a preview of what would become a Trump administration talking point regarding the recent protests, CBP warned that “anarchist extremists have previously exploited constitutionally protected events to engage in violence against police.” The agency listed nearly a dozen “indicators of planned criminal or violent domestic extremist activity,” which included “preoperational surveillance of government buildings, symbols of capitalism, or symbols of corporate globalization” and “possessing anarchist signs.”

“Some of these behavioral indicators involve constitutionally protected activities,” CBP noted. “These indicators, therefore, only support a reasonable suspicion of violent activity when considered in conjunction with additional, supporting facts.”

In the months after the alerts were issued, the Trump administration shifted into election mode, zeroing in on migrant caravans making their way north from Central America to rally the president’s base for the 2018 midterm elections.

Central American migrants run away from tear gas thrown by the US border patrol, after they tried to cross from Tijuana to San Diego in the US, as seen from Tijuana, Baja California state, Mexico on January 1, 2019.

Central American migrants run away from tear gas thrown by the Border Patrol after they tried to cross from Tijuana to San Diego, as seen from Mexico on Jan. 1, 2019.

Photo: Guillermo Arias/AFP via Getty Images

When the caravans reached Tijuana at the end of the year, they were met with tear gas lobbed over the border wall by DHS officers and agents. Last February, The Intercept revealed that the agency had embarked on a sprawling, binational intelligence-gathering operation run by U.S. and Mexican law enforcement focused on journalists, immigration attorneys, and asylum advocates in the area. Targets of the program were routinely interrogated by DHS personnel when crossing into San Diego, in some cases for hours at a time. Multiple lawyers and photojournalists were barred from traveling internationally. Members of the press were forced to turn over their notes, cameras, and phones while plainclothes U.S. border officials pumped them for information about activists working with the caravans.

A month after The Intercept’s investigation, NBC San Diego obtained a cache of documents, leaked by an ICE whistleblower, showing that DHS had built a “secret database of activists, journalists, and social media influencers tied to the migrant caravan and in some cases, placed alerts on their passports.” The program featured the lead DHS border and immigration enforcement agencies, as well as the FBI, and it fell under the umbrella of “Operation Secure Line,” the Trump administration’s border surge of military units during the midterms initially dubbed “Faithful Patriot.” Douša was among the immigrant rights advocates included in the database. In a section of Douša’s classified DHS file titled “Target Significance,” CBP’s San Diego Intelligence Unit wrote, “Possible connection to recent ANTIFA movement along the southwestern border.”

“There were 59 of us in the Operation Secure Line targeting database that basically tied all of us to so-called antifa,” Douša said. “I have no idea what that is.”

The DHS border spying revelations prompted a bipartisan letter to the head of CBP from Sens. Ron Wyden and Chuck Grassley last March demanding answers. The border enforcement agency initially dismissed the matter then, four months after the story broke, admitted that U.S. and Mexican authorities had indeed engaged in a cross-border intelligence operation. In October, the American Civil Liberties Union sued on behalf of asylum advocates caught in the surveillance program, accusing CBP, ICE, and the FBI of First and Fourth Amendment violations. “The government’s powers are not limitless,” the complaint read.

The Anarchist-Antifa Boogeyman

In July of last year, Willem Van Spronsen, a 69-year-old, self-identified anarchist, who went by the pen name Emma Durutti, was shot dead by police while allegedly carrying a rifle and throwing “lit objects” at vehicles used at a privately run ICE jail in Tacoma, Washington. The incident is the most serious escalation of force involving leftists challenging DHS to date. Other reported threats that federal authorities have investigated in recent years appear far shakier.

Last May, the FBI circulated a report, later leaked to Yahoo News and included in the BlueLeaks cache, titled “Anarchist Extremists Very Likely Increasing Targeting of US Government Entities in Arizona, Increasing Risk of Armed Conflict.” As Yahoo News noted in its coverage, which included interviews with individuals included in the document, “almost all of the evidence cited in the report involved nonviolent protest activity.” The reporting came just months after the San Diego Union-Tribune broke the news that the Trump administration’s targeting of journalists and advocates at the border may have been linked to a bizarre FBI investigation in which an alleged “Mexico-based cartel associate known as Cobra Commander” was suspected of trying to sell guns to antifa in order to “stage an armed rebellion at the border.”

Like many of the materials that have emerged from the Blue Leaks trove, DHS documents concerning antifa suggest that the agency struggles to identify real threats in a world rife with internet jokes. In July 2019, for example, CBP alerted personnel about a social media user who had compared immigration agents to the “gestapo” and written “kill all ICE agents,” and “an Antifa member” who had written the following: “I have perfected an acid that you can mix into milkshakes that will still taste refreshing and creamy but give you 3rd degree chemical burns hit me up.” CBP followed the milkshake intel with a list of precautions “to reduce the risk of targeting or attack.”

The antifa-anarchist boogeyman that has haunted the minds of the nation’s border and immigration agencies for the past three and a half years has now gone national. According to a leaked DHS document obtained by Lawfare, the same office of intelligence and analysis that described “anti-fascist (ANTIFA) anarchist extremists” as domestic terrorists in 2018 is now collecting intelligence for federal law enforcement operations in Portland.

The president, accompanied by Barr and the heads of DHS and the FBI, announced that ramped-up federal law enforcement will be coming to several other cities around the country.

Just days after George Floyd was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis and a local precinct went up in flames, Trump declared that he would designate antifa a terrorist organization. Highlighting antifa by name, Attorney General William Barr announced that the nation’s JTTFs, the same federal task forces involved in Salazar’s deportation, would be called upon to “identify criminal organizers and instigators” whose role in hijacking the nationwide protests amounted to “domestic terrorism.” According the attorney general, the FBI is currently pursuing more than 500 such investigations. Incidentally, “instigator,” along with the word “antifa,” was one of the markers used in the secret DHS database of advocates on the border.

“We shouldn’t be looking at DHS in isolation from DOJ,” Faiza Patel, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, told The Intercept. “Historically those two agencies have been engaged in turf battles, but it does seem that they are working pretty much in tandem here.”

As The Intercept reported earlier this month, an official Trump Super PAC has pointed to the administration’s antifa crackdown to raise money for the president’s reelection campaign. “This is a political move,” Patel said. “The feds don’t normally respond to graffiti when the local police say they can handle it.” In a press conference on Wednesday, the president, accompanied by Barr and the heads of DHS and the FBI, announced that ramped-up federal law enforcement will be coming to several other cities around the country.

When the White House began pushing DHS into New York as part of the sanctuary city crackdown earlier this year, an underground network of advocates organized a rapid response system for identifying ICE activity in immigrant communities. Experiences like that are now informing how immigration advocates interpret and respond to the present moment, Douša explained. “It’s very concerning to us, but it doesn’t feel all that different to me yet,” she said. To the extent that there have been any radical shifts in the past few weeks, she said, it’s the fact “that white people are starting to care.”

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