DHS Infringed on First Amendment Rights by Collecting Intel on Portland Protestors

by Eshani Pandya

U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials improperly developed intelligence reports nicknamed “baseball cards” about individuals arrested in Portland, Oregon during the civil unrest following George Floyd’s murder, a DHS internal review found.

The internal report found that the Intelligence & Analysis (I&A) branch of DHS directed federal agents to collect these reports (i.e., dossiers) on people arrested during the Portland protests, but that the reports were unwarranted because the offenses at issue were “unrelated to homeland security.”

This review was initiated after the media uncovered three Open Source Intelligence Reports about two U.S. journalists. I&A had collected information about these two individuals and revealed their names, even though they were engaged in “ordinary journalism.”

The internal DHS report found that DHS I&A’s Current and Emerging Threat Center (CETC) was unprepared for the Portland protests. The report found that the officers deployed to Portland were “inexperienced, inadequately trained junior collectors” who did not have any training on First Amendment protections, standard operating procedures, and what constituted a “true threat.”

A former content manager described these collectors as a “bunch of 6th graders chasing a soccer ball – everyone wanted to be the collector who found the golden egg or found the threat.”

CETC was directed to create “baseball cards” on protestors tied to the civil unrest in Portland for alleged federal crimes because a federal official was convinced that the arrested protestors were all connected and working together “mastermind[ing]” attacks on law enforcement officers.

The report did not find any intelligence to support this claim.

Many CETC staff members objected to the new mandate. They expressed concerns about the legality of the intelligence gathering as well as a lack of understanding about the connection between the arrested protestors and domestic terrorism. In response, CETC leadership stated that “requests from leadership are justification enough…if [the official] gives tasking it’s clear/legal to do.”

While I&A does have the authority to create the intelligence reports, they must meet a reasonable belief standard to collect information on U.S. citizens and residents. “Hunches or intuitions are not sufficient bases for collection,” the report states.

While the total number of intelligence reports could not be assessed (witnesses state there could be between 20-100 reports), the investigative team for DHS’ internal review was provided 43 reports to analyze. Their analysis uncovered that there were more intelligence reports, but some were deleted from the shared drive they were housed in and could not be recovered.

The DHS internal report concludes with recommendations that include implementing consistent trainings, creating written standard operating procedures, and having a contingency plan for unexpected deployment to crisis situations.

This report brings to light disturbing information about the serious missteps by DHS in the collection of intelligence about protesters in the wake of Floyd’s murder. Everyone should be concerned that DHS would send junior officers who lacked even basic training manuals and understanding of the First Amendment to create dossiers about individuals whose activities posed no threat to homeland security. Overwhelming evidence shows that the intelligence operation in Portland was nothing less than a debacle.

We are all now on notice that protesters in the United States may be subject to similar information gathering efforts in the future and we must hold the government accountable when this information is unlawfully collected.

This post originally appeared on Immigration Impact Reprinted with permission.

About The Author

Eshani Pandya is a Cultural Exchange Associate at the American Immigration Council. Her work primarily focuses on supporting incoming exchange visitors, host organizations and lawyers through the process of sponsorship for the J-1 visa program and for the duration of their program. Prior to her arrival at the Council, Eshani participated in a teaching program with World Teach in American Samoa and volunteered at an organic farm in Christchurch, New Zealand. Eshani received her B.A. in International Relations and Interpersonal Communications from the University of Delaware in 2018.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.