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Top U.S. Homeland Security official insists arrests in Portland are lawful

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on Tuesday defended federal agents who have cracked down on protesters in Portland, Oregon, claiming the agents were making lawful arrests and properly identifying themselves as law enforcement.

“We are only targeting and arresting those who have been identified as committing crime,” Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said at a press conference, noting that “all officers are identified as police law enforcement officers.”

Federal officers last week started cracking down on crowds gathering in Portland to protest police brutality and systemic racism in the wake of the death of George Floyd.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, part of DHS, has come under fire after videos surfaced online capturing camouflaged officers carrying guns without clear insignia on their uniforms identifying them as legitimate law enforcement officers.

In the videos, they can be seen arresting people without any explanation and hauling them off in unmarked vehicles.

Since July 4, Wolf said federal agents have made 43 arrests stemming from the protests.

Oregon’s attorney general has since filed a lawsuit against the federal agencies, saying they had seized and detained people without probable cause. Congressional Democrats this week demanded an internal investigation by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general.

On Tuesday, Wolf claimed border patrol agents were facing “smear attacks” and accused the media of inaccurately depicting events in Portland.

“They are not Gestapo as described,” he said.

Wolf also differentiated between how the government has handled the violent protests in Portland and the general street crime in other cities.

On Monday, Trump suggested he would send federal law enforcement agents into other cities, claiming without presenting evidence that Democratic mayors in those places had failed to control crime.

A Justice Department official said Trump’s announcement was referring to an initiative announced this month called “Operation Legend” which is not targeting cities like Portland facing civil unrest, but focused on dispatching federal law enforcement agents into cities to help quell more “traditional” violent crime.

Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; additional reporting by Tim Ahmann, Eric Beech and David Brunnstrom; editing by Chris Reese and David Gregorio