WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump has blamed leftwing extremist groups for instigating nights of looting and violence in cities across the United States, but an intelligence assessment offers limited evidence that organized extremists are behind the turmoil.
In part of a June 1 internal intelligence assessment of the protests seen by Reuters, U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials said most of the violence appears to have been driven by opportunists.
The assessment, prepared by the department’s intelligence and analysis unit, said there was some evidence based on open-source and DHS reporting that the anti-fascist movement Antifa may be contributing to the violence, a view shared by some local police departments in public statements and interviews with Reuters.
Reuters reviewed only a portion of the document and could not determine if it addressed the tactics of the groups involved in the protests in greater detail elsewhere.
The part of the document seen by Reuters did not provide any specific evidence of extremist-driven violence, but noted that white supremacists were working online to increase tensions between protesters and law enforcement by calling for acts of violence against both groups. There was no evidence, however, that white supremacists were causing violence at any of the protests, the document said.
DHS spokesman Alexei Woltornist said the agency would “hold those responsible for the unrest accountable,” but did not specifically comment on the intelligence assessment.
The White House and the Justice Department did not respond to requests for comment.
People took to the streets to protest the killing of a black man, George Floyd, by a white police officer who pinned Floyd’s neck under a knee for nearly nine minutes in Minneapolis on May 25.
In the days that followed, protests in several U.S. cities descended into looting and clashes with police officers, who are using a variety of weapons here on protesters. Most protests have been peaceful, and on Tuesday night, there was less looting and vandalism and clashes were more sporadic even as crowds defied curfews.
Trump has cast part of the blame for violence on Antifa, which is not an organization but rather an amorphous movement that opposes authoritarianism.
As protests intensified over the weekend, U.S. Attorney General William Barr said violence in Minneapolis and other cities was being driven by “far-left extremist groups,” echoing comments Trump had made earlier. Barr said those causing the violence were traveling to hotspots from out of state without elaborating further.
Two Justice Department officials who declined to be identified told Reuters they had seen little evidence to support that claim.
Court and police records from some of the cities where violence erupted - Baltimore, Minneapolis and Washington - show most of the people the police had charged with rioting, property damage and violent offenses over the weekend lived either in those cities or in nearby suburbs. In Minneapolis, records show 25 of the 312 people booked into the county jail since May 26 listed addresses outside the state.
Still, some local and federal officials cited clear signs of organization behind clashes. A New York City Police Department official said protesters there prepared for a confrontation with police by using scouts, encrypted communications and arranging medical teams in advance.
“We’re seeing a lot of outside and independent agitators connected with anarchist groups who are deliberately trying to provoke acts of violence,” said John Miller, the head of the department’s intelligence unit.
One senior DHS official said there are “incredibly strong indications” that the violence in some cities was organized. The official cited allegations that New York City protesters tried to bring supplies of rocks, bottles and flammable liquids to protest areas and that protesters in at least two other cities tried to disrupt police radio transmissions.
In Las Vegas, assistant sheriff Christopher Jones said much of the looting and destruction was being caused by people taking advantage of the chaos. However, he also said graffiti and property damage which he described as targeting “capitalist structures” suggested Antifa involvement. He added that social media posts showed people expressing views “very consistent” with white supremacist ideology had intermingled with the crowd.
Federal authorities said they were beginning to identify people who helped turn the protests violent.
The Justice Department filed charges against an Illinois man, Matthew Rupert, after authorities said he posted a Facebook video in which he passed out what appeared to be explosive devices to protesters in Minneapolis, proclaiming at one point: “We came to riot.”
Prosecutors said police found more “destructive devices” in his car when he was arrested two days later in Chicago.
They did not say whether he claimed to identify with any particular group, either right wing or left wing. Rupert’s attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In New York, prosecutors charged three people with trying to use homemade incendiaries to burn police vehicles, but again did not identify them as belonging to any group.
In addition to New York, police in other places said they saw signs that some of the attacks on officers and looting was more organized, though they stopped short of blaming particular groups.
Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore said on Sunday that a portion of the damage in that city had been caused by people “bent on further destruction,” and that some of the looters targeting stores had by the weekend organized themselves into “caravans” of cars.
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said that while protesters there were well coordinated it was “too early to tell” whether specific groups were orchestrating any of the rioting there. Outlaw said police were looking into “known agitators.”
Reporting by Brad Heath and Ted Hesson in Washington; additional reporting by Mark Hosenball in Washington and Mica Rosenberg in New Yok; additional reporting by Sarah N. Lynch and Andy Sullivan; editing by Ross Colvin and Grant McCool