On Monday, The Nation reported that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) intercepted protesters’ phone communications in Portland this summer. Today, Senator Ron Wyden sent a letter to the DHS demanding answers. 

As Wyden explained to us in an e-mail, “There are still a lot of questions about what DHS has been doing in Portland, but I’m pushing hard for answers. The bottom line is, it would be totally unacceptable, illegal, and unconstitutional for the Trump administration to spy on people because of their political beliefs.”

Wyden, a US Senator representing Oregon, serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee, responsible for conducting oversight of the intelligence community. The letter, addressed to DHS Acting Secretary Chad Wolf and signed by both Wyden and Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, contains a list of detailed questions relating to the intelligence operations reported by The Nation earlier this week.

The first question concerns former DHS intelligence chief Brian Murphy, who it says declined to confirm to the committee that his agency “had neither collected nor exploited or analyzed information obtained from the devices or accounts of protesters or detainees,” as he had stated in a briefing in July. The letter goes on to ask whether the DHS extracted data from protesters’ phones, if it later analyzed this data, and whether it obtained authorization from a judge to do so. 

The letter begins by stating, “A recent article in The Nation alleges that an interagency task force involving DHS and the Department of Justice (DOJ) conducted surveillance of protesters’ phones in Portland.” As we reported on Monday, the DHS conducted a cell phone cloning attack in order to intercept Portland protesters’ phone communications this summer. The letter notes that these activities would qualify as unconstitutional.

Congress has enacted strict legal protections that require government agencies to obtain the approval of an independent judge before searching Americans’ devices and surveilling their communications—absent an emergency. That is to prevent the government from suppressing legitimate free speech protected by the First Amendment and violating Americans’ right to privacy, which is protected by the Fourth Amendment.

These recent reports, which allege that the DHS has deployed high-tech surveillance technologies against protesters in Portland, raise serious concerns, which Congress has a responsibility to investigate.

The DHS’s deployment to Portland was a controversial one, having taken place against the wishes of many local officials, including Portland’s mayor, Ted Wheeler. Forces mobilized included Border Patrol Tactical Units (Customs and Border Protection’s elite special forces equivalent) and Justice Department assets like the US Marshals. While the response was widely criticized as heavy-handed, the Trump administration justified it as necessary to respond to civil unrest and protect federal property.

“DHS is not going to back down from our responsibilities,” Acting Secretary Wolf said in response to criticism in July. “We are not escalating, we are protecting.”

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