House Democrats demand investigation into use of force at Portland protests

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives asked the internal watchdogs for the Justice and Homeland Security departments to launch an investigation into whether they have “abused emergency authorities” in order to justify targeting peaceful protesters last week in Portland, Oregon.

In a joint letter to the inspectors general for the two departments, lawmakers said they were concerned that Attorney General William Barr and acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf were using federal agents to “suppress First Amendment protected activities in Washington, D.C., Portland and other communities.”

Inspectors general sit inside executive branch agencies, having a unique duty to report their findings to both Congress and agency heads.

Representatives for Justice and Homeland Security and their inspector general offices did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the Democrats’ letter.

The letter was signed by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson and House Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney.

“This is a matter of utmost urgency,” they wrote. “Citizens are concerned that the Administration has deployed a secret police force, not to investigate crimes, but to intimidate individuals it views as political adversaries.”

The crackdown in the liberal bastion of Portland drew widespread criticism and legal challenges as videos surfaced of camouflage-clad officers without clear identification badges using force and unmarked vehicles to arrest protesters without explanation.

Oregon’s governor and Portland’s mayor, both Democrats, called the move an abuse of power by the federal government and the state filed a lawsuit against the U.S. agencies involved.

The U.S. attorney for the District of Oregon has also requested an investigation by the Homeland Security inspector general, and asked the Justice Department’s internal watchdog to review the U.S. Marshals Service use of “less-lethal munitions.”

Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Additional reporting by David Lawder; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Peter Cooney