Posts

Ben Wittes Gets Stung by the Trump Effect

WaPo has a report that DHS disseminated intelligence reports discussing tweets about leaked unclassified materials describing that DHS knows fuckall about the protests in Portland.

Over the past week, the department’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis has disseminated three Open Source Intelligence Reports to federal law enforcement agencies and others, summarizing tweets written by two journalists — a reporter for theNew York Times and the editor in chief of the blog Lawfare — and noting they had published leaked, unclassified documents about DHS operations in Portland. The intelligence reports, obtained by The Washington Post, include written descriptions and images of the tweets and the number of times they had been liked or retweeted by others.

After The Post published a story online Thursday evening detailing the department’s practices, the acting homeland security secretary, Chad Wolf, ordered the intelligence office to stop collecting information on journalists and announced an investigation into the matter.

The WaPo specifically notes that normally this kind of thing only happens with terrorism and other violent actors.

Some of the leaked DHS documents the journalists posted and wrote about revealed shortcomings in the department’s understanding of the nature of the protests in Portland, as well as techniques that intelligence analysts have used. A memo by the department’s top intelligence official, which was tweeted by the editor of Lawfare, says personnel relied on “FINTEL,” an acronym for financial intelligence, as well as finished intelligence “Baseball cards” of arrested protesters to try to understand their motivations and plans. Historically, military and intelligence officials have used such cards for biographical dossiers of suspected terrorists, including those targeted in lethal drone strikes.

The DHS intelligence reports, which are unclassified, are traditionally used for sharing the department’s analysis with federal law enforcement agencies, state and local officials, and some foreign governments. They are not intended to disseminate information about American citizens who have no connection to terrorists or other violent actors and who are engaged in activity protected by the First Amendment, current and former officials said.

The tweets were sent by Ben Wittes and NYT’s Mike Baker.

Wittes wrote a long thread in response, suggesting he may take further action, and complaining, in particular, that discussion of his tweets was disseminated as intelligence reporting.

Welcome to the Trump Effect, Ben.

I have long argued that the President created something I call the Trump Effect, which makes things that the US has long done — like abusive treatment of undocumented immigrants, counterproductive use of violence overseas, and excessive intelligence collection — visible to people like mainstream voters and some kinds of national security commentators.

Here, Wittes is specifically complaining about policies he and Lawfare have, in the past, applauded, a special category of intelligence collection — even collection of speech otherwise protected under the First Amendment — targeted at those believed to pose a unique threat to national security. I’ve tangled with Lawfare in the past over whether such policies disproportionately constrain Muslim speech. And I noted — in response to a Pollyannish prediction from Wittes that Trump wouldn’t be that bad in part because this kind of intelligence is focused primarily overseas that, no, it had already been deployed against Black Lives Matter, precisely the movement it is currently being deployed against.

Consider: One of the most inflated cases of terrorism in recent decades was Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a guy whose father asked the FBI for help because the father worried that the son was being radicalized. Rather than helping, the FBI targeted Mohamud — who was in contact with AQAP propagandist Samir Khan — in a sting. After over a year (probably more than a year), they got the teenager to press a button he thought would detonate a bomb that targeted Pioneer Square in Portland, the site of the historic courthouse. During his prosecution, the FBI wiretapped several lawyers representing Mohamud. The FBI almost  certainly cultivated him after doing back door searches targeting Samir Khan and others. Mohamud, now 28, still has 16 years left on his 30 year sentence, assuming time off for good behavior.

I’m not saying Mohamud, after being radicalized (partly by FBI informants and undercover officers) posed no danger. But the danger and the special authorities used against him were all premised on his intent to do damage to the historic courthouse a few blocks aware from the Federal Courthouse, the very same rationale Billy Barr has repeatedly cited for sending Federal officers to incite more violence in Portland. Whatever you want to call the damage done by a handful of protestors in Portland, it is real damage, unlike what Mohamud got incited by Federal officers to commit.

And using the framework that Lawfare has largely applauded, Trump’s national security establishment has now targeted the First Amendment activities of those deemed to exist in a network, however diffuse, that also includes those “supporting” violence in Portland.

Once a majority of the country came to support Black Lives Matter, a majority of the country came to exist within a diffuse network that has long been treated using a similar framework used against terrorism.

Including Ben Wittes.

None of this makes what DHS has done right. And, because Wittes and the NYT are public figures with access to powerful lawyers (unlike the great majority of journalists covering Portland’s stand-off), Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf reversed course.

But the response should not just be a complaint about how Trump and Barr have treated protestors and journalists and lawyers using the same approach that Wittes long applauded to be used with terrorists, one that long ago dispensed with the need to have a real nexus overseas. It should also be an urgent call to reexamine how we have investigated Muslims in the name of terrorism, particularly as the FBI continues to have such success investigating white supremacist terrorism without using this framework.

Federal intelligence targeting networks — especially when wielded by those who don’t understand the networks they’re looking at — will always impinge on First Amendment activities. It just so happens that now it is impinging on the First Amendment activities of those who used to applaud such approaches.

Update: I’ve been getting the two courthouses in Portland confused all morning. Hopefully I’ve fixed it now.

Ceci N’est Pas La Violence: The Treachery of Chad Wolf

I’ve had this image stuck in my head since the non-lawyer, movie-villainesque Secretary of Homeland Security complained about violence in Portland, Oregon.

In a now-deleted tweet, acting DHS Secretary Wolf posted this with three other photos in which he is looking at graffiti deposited on the federal courthouse’s exterior walls.

Violence, he calls it.

His nonsensical labeling called to mind a surrealist work with which you are likely familiar:

Image: La Traihison des Images (The Treachery of Images) by Rene Magritte, c. 1929, owned by Los Angeles County Museum of Art, via Wikipedia. Displayed here under Fair Use.

Just as this is not a pipe, what Wolf displays in his photos is not violence even if he calls it that. This palimpsest of paint is not “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, which either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.”[1]

It’s graffiti expressing outrage against state violence, a protest not unlike that in December 16, 1773, when protesters demonstrated against the state by tossing tea into Boston Harbor.

Tossing the tea wasn’t violence. It was a protest expressing rejection of oppressive state policies which denied colonists both representation and fair competition in the marketplace.

The graffiti in Portland protests and rejects systematic abuses by police — the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against persons of color which has resulted in higher rates of injury, death, excessive prosecution, and constant low level fear of police.

Wolf has been pushing this ‘graffiti is violence’ argument for days now. You’d think someone with a bachelor’s degree in history would have learned that graffiti is historically anything but violence.

Photo: Ancient Pompeii graffito caricature of a politician, by Zebulon via Wikipedia (CC0)

What destroyed Pompeii wasn’t the graffiti on its walls.

He’s also gone on a right-wing media tour, shifting his language to equate vandalism with terrorism. What horse shit. It wasn’t burning boxes and spray paint which took down the World Trade Center, giving rise the department he now leads.


Wolf has linked protests and vandalism — the latter can’t be blamed solely on protesters in the absence of any investigative effort to determine if agents provocateur were involved — with “violent anarchism,” using that label 72 times in a list of grievances against anti-racism protesters. Again, more bullshit.

It’s amazing how few federal employees and Portland police have been injured amid all this violence Wolf claims has occurred; it’s equally amazing how the streets of Portland continue to function under the pressure of all these anarchists.


Gosh, just look at the devastation — people walking about pandemic-emptied streets unimpeded, minding their own business. Unmarked security forces conducting undocumented warrantless arrests are the answer to this kind of outrageous calm, aren’t they?

Chad Wolf is an idiot who’s damaged what little remained of Homeland Security’s legitimacy. Even employees within DHS have expressed concerns about their mission under Wolf’s questionable leadership.

Wolf certainly isn’t ensuring the security of this country by actively targeting American citizens exercising their First Amendment rights, sending out personnel untrained in crowd control and riot response to deal with amorphous groups’ peaceful protests, armed to the teeth and ready to toss pepper spray and non-lethal loads at the drop of a hat, fomenting violence.


It’s so patently obvious Wolf’s minions have no intention of deescalating tensions and aren’t there to protect federal property but instead to mete out punishment even on passive dissenters. Indeed,Wolf is the source of violence.

This Navy veteran who reminded Wolf’s minions of their oaths put them on notice. Any of these federal employees who are not upholding their oaths by executing unlawful orders and violating civil rights should be investigated and prosecuted. They have personal agency and should be pushing back at Wolf for failing his own oath of office.

Meanwhile, the real work of Homeland Security is given short shrift in order to unlawfully surveil Americans using protests as a pretext to treat citizens like hostile foreign adversaries. This is yet another distortion of words and meaning, shifting the identity of our country’s enemies from intrusive foreign agents and terroristic white supremacists to citizens who have legitimate protests against a system which is killing Americans with impunity.

Seriously, though: is Chad Wolf going to start spying on moms, invading their Facebook groups, Instagram cooking posts, and bookclub blogs to suss their plans this evening?

Is he going to start calling mothers ‘enemies of the people’?

When moms in yoga pants and bike helmets are under attack for protecting peaceful protesters, Wolf needs to stop the word games and ask himself just who the real enemy is, and whose side he’s really on.

As one sign held by a mom read, “Step Off, Chad.”

It’s time for Wolf to go.

 

[1] Definition from The World Health Organization’s World report on violence and health