Undercover FBI agents infiltrated and sometimes videotaped political protests in Portland in 2020 and 2021, according to The New York Times.
Some of the protests were far away from any federal property, the Dec. 23, 2021, article said. Information provided by some of the agents contributed to an unspecified number of arrests.
According to the story, some FBI officials were concerned the tactics threatened First Amendment rights.
"The breadth of F.B.I. involvement in Portland and other cities where federal teams were deployed at street protests became a point of concern for some within the bureau and the Justice Department who worried that it could undermine the First Amendment right to protest against the government, according to two officials familiar with the discussions," said the article, headlined, "The FBI Deployed Surveillance Teams Inside Portland Protests."
The story also quotes Oregon U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden as saying he also is concerned.
"The Department of Justice needs to explain to me why it deployed those teams and provide a real record of their activities," Wyden said. "What were they there for? Were they there primarily to chill peaceful protesters, or were they there to protect federal property?"
The protests began after George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, was murdered by Minneapolis police on May 25 and continued for months. Although they subsided by the end of the year, one took place at the Democratic Party of Oregon headquarters after Joe Biden was elected president and others continued into 2021.
According to The New York Times, FBI agents were first deployed to Portland in June 2020 to help protest the downtown federal courthouse.
"But the F.B.I. role quickly widened, persisting months after activists turned their attention away from the courthouse, with some targeting storefronts or local institutions whose protection would normally be up to the local police," said the article, which claims the surveillance continued into the start of 2021.
The article said that both local and federal law enforcement officials complained that lawful peaceful protests were hijacked in many cases by criminals, resulting in violent confrontations with police, arsons and vandalism.
According to the article, the surveillance and recording began in large part because black-clad protesters wearing masks were difficult to identify, even when they were seen throwing objects at police and public buildings, and vandalizing businesses. FBI agents also dressed in black and infiltrated the crowds during an unspecified number of protests, the story said.
The article said police officers made more than 1,000 arrests during the course of the protests, and more than 200 people ultimately faced criminal prosecution. More than 100 cases had to be dropped because there was not sufficient evidence, however.
But the article also quotes protest organizers who were told of The Times' findings as saying that surveillance agents recording and following protesters in the midst of a demonstration was a form of domestic spying.
"These are all insidious tactics that chill First Amendment expression and erode trust with local officials," Bobbin Singh, executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center, said in the article. He called the government's operations an "alarming" misuse of resources.
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