The Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump rioters was disturbing both because of the violence that left five people dead and because of the seeming ease with which the mob breached police lines. Many have rightly pointed to the stark differences between how the federal government and certain police officers prepared for and responded to the seditious mob, whose violent intentions are still coming to light, and how the government responded to the racial justice protests that swept the nation last summer.
Reports about the Capitol attack indicate that federal agencies, including the Capitol Police, were largely unprepared for the thousands who stormed the building, despite the attack having been openly planned on social media for weeks in advance. And questions remain about the Defense Department’s slow response in mobilizing National Guard troops as well as about intelligence agencies’ reported failures.
By contrast, as Americans took to the streets in June 2020 to protest the police killings of Black people, federal police officers, sometimes with identifying insignia obscured, descended on Washington, DC, and engaged in a number of authoritarian actions, such as deploying low-flying helicopters, armored vehicles, and even the use of force against peaceful protesters gathered near the White House. As President Donald Trump sought to cast himself as a “law and order” president, his administration sent forces into multiple American cities, many of them part of the ostensible “anti-crime” program called Operation Legend.
In 2020, American Oversight submitted scores of public records requests to learn more about this response to the protests and the implementation of Operation Legend. Multiple productions of records obtained by American Oversight highlight the difference between the government’s initial response to the Capitol attack that left five dead and its treatment of demonstrators last summer. Other records about Operation Legend suggest a worrisome lack of coordination between local and federal officials, an issue that reportedly also hampered the response to the Capitol attack.
The records show significant resources being deployed against protesters last summer, despite those demonstrations having been largely peaceful. For example, the U.S. Marshals Service recorded $1,392,918.70 in expenditures related to the deployment of personnel to respond to protests in Portland, Ore., between June 1 and Aug. 12, 2020, according to a letter sent in response to an American Oversight Freedom of Information Act request.
Portland was the site of sustained demonstrations throughout those months, with a particularly heavy-handed crackdown that saw federal law enforcement forcibly putting protesters into unmarked vans and using tear gas and rubber bullets. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf made a visit to the city in mid-July, where he decried the protesters as a “violent mob” — records we obtained indicate that the trip, which was combined with a trip to Las Vegas to meet with business and casino executives, cost taxpayers more than $90,000.
Another document shows a June 5, 2020 request from the U.S. Secret Service for support from U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Air and Marine Operations to respond to the “significant and unprecedented events occurring in the National Capital Region” — including a request for a helicopter “capable of delivering airborne quick reaction force.”
Documents American Oversight recently obtained from Immigration and Customs Enforcement also shed light on that agency’s role in responding to protests. The records included updates on demonstrations in multiple cities, compiled from media reports by the ICE Joint Intelligence Operations Center and broadly distributed to administration leadership, including DHS leadership and the White House Situation Room.
The update for June 1 noted that police had “made a total of 1,669 arrests across 22 U.S. cities” in recent days. The arrest figure was “around 4,000” in the update sent the following day, which also noted media reports that ”neo-Nazi, and other paramilitary far-right groups, are calling for terror attacks during the ongoing unrest throughout the United States.” Another document dated June 4 outlined the deployment of ICE Homeland Security Investigations officers across the country assisting in government response to civil unrest.
A message about personal safety sent to employees by then-acting head of ICE Matthew Albence on June 2 included advice to vary daily travel and activities if possible and “[r]emove ICE identifying badges or clothing” such as hats, jackets, and lanyards while in public. “Anything that identifies you as an ICE employee can make you a target,” the note warned. It’s unclear whether that recommendation applied to employees’ activities in their personal life or while carrying out official duties. Many law enforcement officials were criticized for not displaying identifying information while deployed to protests.
Other records pertaining to Operation Legend highlight a lack of coordination within the federal government and especially between federal agencies and local officials. The Department of Justice announced the program on July 8, 2020, describing it as “a sustained, systematic and coordinated law enforcement initiative across all federal law enforcement agencies working in conjunction with state and local law enforcement officials to fight the sudden surge of violent crime, beginning in Kansas City, MO.”
But the project, named after LeGend Taliferro, a Black child shot and killed in Kansas City in June 2020, launched at the same time as the brutal crackdown on protests and drew criticism from Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas for racist “dog whistling.” When the program was expanded to include Chicago and Albuquerque later in July, Lucas told the Kansas City Star that Trump was “exploiting the pain” of the Black community and expressed concerns about the abuse of federal authority.
Lucas said that he had spoken with both Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller, and that all three shared “concerns that the operation could expand beyond as it’s been described.” The Star also noted that Lucas was dissatisfied with the lack of advance notice before the operation was announced.
Documents obtained by American Oversight from the Kansas City mayor’s office back up Lucas’ suggestion he wasn’t substantially looped in to the planning of Operation Legend. In an email exchange on July 9 — the day after the program was announced — White House intergovernmental affairs staffer William Crozer connected Lucas’ chief of staff John Stamm to a Justice Department official, saying that Stamm “had some questions around Operation Legend.”
In another exchange between Crozer and Stamm on July 23, Stamm wrote that he appreciated the Justice Department’s correction of Attorney General William Barr’s false claim that Operation Legend had already led to 200 arrests in Kansas City. (The U.S. attorney’s office for Western Missouri clarified that it had filed charges in just one case.) “That caused quite a bit of distress here during that small period of time,” Stamm wrote.
Other emails from August show Stamm and Crozer emailing about the arrest of Taliferro’s alleged killer, as well as about a press conference held by Barr in Kansas City, about which the Trump administration appears to not have provided Lucas much, if any, information until the day it occurred.
Documents we obtained from the Illinois governor’s office show a similar lack of coordination between federal and local officials on Operation Legend. On July 20, the Chicago Tribune reported that Operation Legend would shortly expand to Chicago, with plans to deploy 150 Department of Homeland Security agents to the city within the week. According to the documents, the next day Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office reached out to the White House asking for help scheduling a call between Pritzker and then-Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf for that day, which the records suggest was not immediately scheduled.
Another email exchange from later that morning shows Pritzker assistant Claire Lindberg writing to Cherie Short of DHS’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, trying to get the governor even “just a few minutes with the Secretary today.” Short replied that Wolf’s schedule wouldn’t “allow” it. “There is no surge [in federal police deployments] underway in Chicago right now and the media stories have been inaccurate,” Short added.
Pritzker’s chief of staff Anne Caprara then weighed in, telling Short that the governor “will be in front of the press later today and he will certainly be asked about the deployment of secret federal police forces in Chicago.” Caprara added that she “would hate to have to advise him to say that unfortunately he was told it would be two days before the Secretary of DHS could get back to him.”
The urgency of the outreach from the governor’s office suggests he was not yet looped in on the expansion to his state, which the Justice Department formally announced just one day later. Around noon, Short confirmed that Wolf would not be able to speak with Pritzker that day and connected his office with the Justice Department to arrange a call with the U.S. attorney in Chicago. “DOJ is a lead in these efforts, the Governor will be well served speaking with them,” Short wrote.
Caprara responded that she was “happy to talk to DOJ” and that her office had already been in touch with the U.S. attorney. “But given that the US Attorney in Oregon had no heads up about what went down in Portland — we’re going to need to hear from the Administration directly,” she wrote.
Albuquerque Mayor Keller told Time he received a “courtesy phone call” less than a day before the Justice Department announced expansion of the operation to his city. In response to an American Oversight records request, the City of Albuquerque said it could find no emails between its mayoral office and the White House during the timeframe of Operation Legend’s expansion.
Other records from within the federal government also appear to show lack of internal preparation and coordination. For example, emails we obtained from mid-July 2020 show the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Protective Service appeared to initially plan to deploy personnel for the expansion of the program to Chicago, but ultimately stood down following questions about whether DHS or the Department of Justice would provide the funding for it.
During Barr’s last week in office, he announced to little fanfare the “final results” of Operation Legend. But any claims of success must be tempered by the poor coordination evidenced in both news reports and the documents highlighted above, as well as by significant criticism that it was a politicized extension of the federal government’s authoritarian response to civil rights protests. That response has been thrown into stark relief by the events of Jan. 6, and many more questions remain about the government’s actions last summer and about the attack on the U.S. Capitol. American Oversight will continue to investigate both.
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