FBI Had Surveillance Squads Inside Portland Protests: Report Oregon State Troopers and Portland police advance through tear gas and fire works while dispersing a protest against police brutality and racial injustice on Sept. 5, 2020, in Portland, Oregon. (Nathan Howard/Getty Images)
By Brian Freeman | Wednesday, 22 December 2021 12:42 PM
The FBI deployed extensive surveillance operations within Portland’s protest movement, according to documents obtained by The New York Times, the paper reported on Tuesday.
The surveillance included agents standing alongside activists, following vandalism suspects to guide the local police toward arrests, and clandestinely videotaping inside one of the nation’s most active domestic protest movements.
Some in the Justice Department and the bureau were worried that the depth of FBI involvement in Portland and other cities where federal agents were deployed at street protests could undermine the First Amendment right to demonstrate against the government, according to two officials familiar with the situation, the Times reported.
Although the FBI has broad latitude to carry out surveillance if there are perceived threats to national security or if federal crimes may be committed, bureau guidelines warn that agents should prioritize less-intrusive techniques if their actions could stymie legitimate demonstrations.
Upon hearing the details of the revelations by the Times, organizers of the protests and civil rights groups contend that surveillance agents recording and tailing protesters during a demonstration was a form of domestic spying.
"These are all insidious tactics that chill First Amendment expression and erode trust with local officials," said Bobbin Singh, executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center, one of several civil rights groups that criticized the mass arrests and violent crackdowns in response to the demonstrations. He called the government’s operations an "alarming" misuse of resources.
Kieran Ramsey, the FBI’s special agent in charge of the Portland field office, said his team was committed to going after "violent instigators who exploit legitimate, peaceful protests and engage in violations of federal law."
Renn Cannon, who was the Portland office’s special agent in charge during the demonstrations until he left early this year, said there were constant protest-related crimes and tense political dynamics, leaving the bureau to try to address the crimes while also upholding First Amendment rights.
"I thought a lot about what is allowed under the Constitution," Cannon said. "How do you do surveillance effectively, safely, and legally? That was something we spent a lot of time on," although he refused to talk about specific opertions or tactics.
However, he insisted that he believed his agents had crossed no lines while attempting to make sure that laws were enforced.