Sen. Gary Peters demanded to know Thursday why Homeland Security didn’t ask for help from Oregon officials before sending in officers and agents to help protect the federal courthouse in Portland.
Acting Secretary Chad F. Wolf told the Michigan Democrat they had, indeed, made those appeals, and were rebuffed.
Another Democrat, Sen. Kamala D. Harris, accused Homeland Security of using rubber bullets on a legal observer.
Mr. Wolf told the California lawmaker that was impossible — the federal agents and officers on the scene didn’t have rubber bullets among their equipment.
Several Democrats on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee said Homeland Security trampled on “peaceful” protests.
Mr. Wolf countered that they stood by each night for the marches, speeches and protests. It was only late at night, when protests turned violent, with rioters attempting to breach the federal courthouse, that officers and agents responded.
Portland is nearing 70 straight days of protests; the city has become a striking dividing line.
President Trump’s critics accuse him of sending in additional federal law enforcement officers and agents to try to inflame the situation and to spark riot footage that he can then use in his campaign ads.
Mr. Wolf, though, said the decisions about additional forces were made at his department, and federal forces were sent in because the courthouse was under serious threat — and under the law, Congress has charged his department with protecting federal property nationwide.
The acting secretary spent most of Thursday’s hearing attempting to swat down what he said were false assumptions or information swirling out of Portland, calling the narratives that have emerged a disservice to the law enforcement personnel who are trying to allow the peaceful protests while also protecting the courthouse.
He said all federal officers wear insignias showing their agency, contradicting claims by protesters that they have been unable to figure out who they are confronting.
He acknowledged the officers aren’t wearing name tags, but said they do have unique letters and numbers to identify them for accountability purposes. They don’t wear name tags because protesters have doxxed some agents and officers, revealing their personal information or, in some cases, the hotels where the reinforcement agents are staying.
One man has been charged with revealing that information online, then encouraging hotel staff to taint their food, and prodding fellow protesters to create a commotion at the hotels to prevent the agents from sleeping.
Mr. Peters, the top Democrat on the committee Thursday, said those were bad apples, but they shouldn’t be allowed to taint the larger protests.
“We can’t allow a small number of bad actors who want to instigate violence or harm law enforcement personnel to take advantage of a peaceful demonstration and demonstrators that are exercising their First Amendment rights,” he said. “However DHS’s chosen response to the situation on the ground I think is unacceptable.”
The acting secretary said that’s not true. He said he specifically chose U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection personnel because ICE deals regularly with detention facility riots and CBP faces barricade situations at ports of entry — both similar to the situations in Portland.
“I did not send law enforcement from the Coast Guard, from TSA, or anyone else to Portland. They are not trained,” he said.
He also said federal agents have only made arrests within a three-block radius of the courthouse, and are not roaming the streets as a general police force.
In one exchange, Ms. Harris said that a federal judge ordered federal law enforcement not to target legal observers. A day after that order, Ms. Harris said, a federal agent shot a law student serving as an observer near her heart with a rubber bullet at point-blank range.
“It was not one of our agents because we do not use that type of less-than-lethal munitions,” Mr. Wolf responded.
“It’s well known there are mothers, including pregnant women, who are attending these protests,” she said. “I would advise you, sir, to consult with medical experts to determine the impact of chemical irritants on pregnant women.”
Mr. Wolf said his officers do not take action against the peaceful protests, which usually last until about midnight. It’s the violent riots, which begin after that, and involve attempts to storm the courthouse or light it on fire, that spur the reaction, he said.