In early June, Americans expressed outrage at the sight of unidentified federal officers roaming U.S. cities, at the use of military-style drones over protests, and at the disturbingly aggressive response of law enforcement to peaceful demonstrations. But recent events have made it alarmingly clear that those instances were just the beginning.
As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, the Trump administration has sought to distract from the rising death toll and dwindling medical stockpile with “Operation Legend,” in which federal law enforcement agents are deployed to major cities, purportedly to help fight crime and violence. This is not to be confused, apparently, with Operation Diligent Valor, which was the mission name given to the force of federal officers deployed to Portland, Ore., where disturbing incidents of use of force and controversial arrests have made news over the past week.
In Portland, reports have emerged of officers driving around in unmarked vehicles, wearing nonspecific “police” insignia, and seizing protesters. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf — who, it is worth noting, has not been confirmed by the Senate — has defended the actions of officers, saying the city is “under siege” by a “violent mob” of anarchists and stating on Tuesday that there had been 43 arrests since July 4.
Operation Legend was launched earlier this month in Kansas City, Mo., and this week President Donald Trump announced that he would deploy more officers to Chicago and Albuquerque — even against the wishes of local leaders who have condemned the operation as a political stunt. And on Thursday, officials said the administration would be sending Customs and Border Protection agents to Seattle. Attorney General William Barr has vocally defended the operation, echoing Trump’s unsupported claim that the rise in crime is a direct result of the nationwide protests for racial justice and against police brutality. Barr even made a false statement that the operation had led to 200 arrests in Kansas City in the past two weeks.
But the deployment of federal officers to U.S. cities had been alarming civil rights advocates well before the announcement of Operation Legend. According to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, at least 2,000 Department of Homeland Security officials — including officials from CBP, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Transportation Security Administration, and the Coast Guard — have been deployed to cities across the country since June 5. And on Friday, the Nation reported that the increasingly militarized CBP has for weeks been supplying local law enforcement with personnel, drones and surveillance assistance. Back in early June, the use of a CBP-operated Predator drone over Minneapolis raised serious concerns about surveillance of protesters and prompted lawmakers to demand answers.
As part of our investigation into the government’s response to protests, American Oversight filed Freedom of Information Act requests to shed light on law enforcement’s efforts to track or surveil protesters. And late last week, as news circulated about the worsening situation in Portland, we filed multiple FOIA requests to the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security for records related to the deployment, including for communications with the White House. As the Trump administration poises to take its alarming tactics to other cities, we’ll continue to investigate.
For more on what happened this week, and on what we’ve uncovered, read on:
Whistleblower Complaint Alleges Top Officials Allowed Pompeo’s Misconduct to Continue: Last Friday, we obtained a whistleblower complaint in which a State Department employee raised concerns about having directly witnessed “questionable activities” on the part of Secretary Mike Pompeo. The complaint had been filed with the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General — the same inspector general, Steve Linick, who had been digging into allegations of Pompeo’s misconduct, and whom Pompeo had requested that Trump fire back in April.
Pompeo and his family are the subject of numerous allegations of improper use of State Department resources, from traveling to meetings with political donors to hosting elite dinners on the taxpayers’ dime. According to the whistleblower complaint, the employee repeatedly notified agency leadership about the activities, but was blocked from addressing the issue further, with top officials “specifically direct[ing] subordinate staff to continue facilitating questionable activities after the concerns were raised.”
What Is Susan Pompeo Doing at the State Department?: Secretary Pompeo’s wife is at the center of many of the allegations of improper use of State Department resources, and this week’s story in Politico on her role at the State Department isn’t the first time that question has been asked — including by American Oversight. From tasking department employees with driving her to the airport to weighing in on office decor, officials have been sounding the alarm over the blurred line between official duties and personal interest. “Staffers were expected to be at both Pompeos’ beck and call for anything they wanted,” write Politico’s Nahal Toosi and Daniel Lippman. Two weeks ago, we filed a lawsuit for records that could shed light on her role, including any calendars kept for her or official emails she sent.
Stephen Miller Emails with Justice Department Official About Anti-Immigration Measures: American Oversight’s FOIA litigation has forced the release of new emails showing how White House Senior Adviser Stephen Miller likely drew upon the legal expertise of a top Justice Department official in the crafting of some of the administration’s harshest anti-immigration policies.
The records include messages between Miller and Gene Hamilton, who was at the time of the emails a counselor to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. They show Miller asking Hamilton for details about statutes that could support making asylum-seekers wait in Mexico or could justify using immigration fines to pay for the border wall. Also in the records is a brief exchange with Sessions about Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and a couple of emails to then-Chief of Staff John Kelly about DACA and family separation.
White House Information Stranglehold Continues: Late last week, the White House blocked Director Robert Redfield of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from testifying at a House Education and Labor Committee hearing on the reopening of public schools. The president continues to be at odds with top scientists and health officials on the issue of how to safely reopen schools in the fall — earlier this month, he pressured the CDC to weaken its safety recommendations, calling them “very tough & expensive.” New CDC guidelines posted Thursday now push hard for getting children back in the classrooms. (See: White House Control of Information During the Pandemic)
Pompeo Aide Calls Giuliani’s Contact with Pompeo ‘Deeply Disturbing’: Lisa Kenna, the executive secretary to Pompeo, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday that Rudy Giuliani’s contacts with Pompeo in 2019 were “deeply disturbing.” Those contacts, revealed in documents uncovered by American Oversight, showed Kenna instructing staff to tell Giuliani to “bring the documents” when meeting with Pompeo in March 2019. At that time, Giuliani had been in the midst of his smear campaign against former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who was ousted later that spring.
Trump Tried to Get the British Open at His Scottish Resort: Prior to his appointment as ambassador to Great Britain, Woody Johnson had donated to Trump’s presidential campaign. But according to a new story from the New York Times, in 2018 Trump wanted Johnson’s help for business reasons, specifically to help his struggling golf resort in Scotland, Trump Turnberry. In February 2018, the Times reported, Trump asked Johnson to try to get the U.K. government to help bring the British Open to Turnberry.
Turnberry, you might remember, is where the Defense Department had spent $184,000 in taxpayer money by having flight crews stay there during refueling layovers. We also have a copy of Johnson’s receipt from his taxpayer-funded stay there in July 2018.
Trump’s Latest Census Gambit: With 2020 more than half over and the Supreme Court having last year blocked the attempted inclusion of a citizenship question on the census, the president this week issued an executive order barring undocumented immigrants from counting in the decennial allocation of congressional seats. As with the citizenship question, groups will be challenging the order in court. But unlike with the citizenship question, in this case the administration is not using any pretext that it is for the purposes of enforcing voting rights.
Part of Investigation: