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DHS Official On Reports Of Federal Officers Detaining Protesters In Portland, Ore.


Federal agents in unmarked vans are picking up and detaining protesters on the streets of Portland, Ore. That's according to reporting from Oregon Public Broadcasting. Protests spurred by the death of George Floyd have been a constant in the city for more than six weeks, but this week accounts from protesters suggest federal law enforcement is using tactics that are being questioned by civil rights advocates. And the U.S. attorney in Oregon is asking for a federal investigation based on those accounts. Joining me now to talk about it is Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary of Homeland Security.

Welcome to the program.

KEN CUCCINELLI: Good afternoon.

MCCAMMON: So first question - are federal agents using unmarked vehicles to pick up protesters in U.S. cities?

CUCCINELLI: Well, in Portland, they have. I wouldn't say this is used anywhere else, but that was done obviously to keep both the officers safe and also, when crowds gathered, to move people to a safe location for questioning. In the one instance I'm familiar with, they were - believed they had identified someone who had assaulted officers or a position - a federal building there, the courthouse. Upon questioning, they determined they were - they did not have the right person, and that person was released. So - but all that questioning took place out of reach of a mob that had been gathering in one point, so that's how that concluded.

MCCAMMON: You're saying there was just one case. Are you talking about the protester Mark Pettibone, who spoke with my colleagues at Oregon Public Broadcasting?

CUCCINELLI: I'm not sure the name of the particular individual, so I can't answer that one.

MCCAMMON: Well, this gentleman said he was pulled into an unmarked van full of armed men who didn't identify themselves, driven to a building he only found out after being released was a federal courthouse, not the county jail where local law enforcement would take him. Why - can you comment, first of all, on this allegation?

CUCCINELLI: Well, I can't speak to this specific instance, but the federal courthouse there is protected by Federal Protective Services, who are being supported by both CBP and ICE officers and - because of the violence there and the graffiti. I'm sure you've seen all of that. And they are attempting to make arrests. They are attempting to identify violent rioters and to then pick them up, arrest them and go and have them prosecuted federally.

MCCAMMON: Are you saying this has only happened once?

CUCCINELLI: The offenses there are federal.

MCCAMMON: Are you saying this has only happened once?

CUCCINELLI: I'm not speaking to the number of times it has happened. I'm telling you what they're doing in terms of a process. And I fully expect that as long as people continue to be violent and to destroy property that we will attempt to identify those folks. We will pick them up in front of the courthouse. If we spot them elsewhere, we will pick them up elsewhere. And if we have a question about somebody's identity - like the first example I noted to you - after questioning determine it isn't someone of interest, then they get released. And that's standard law enforcement procedure, and it's going to continue as long as the violence continues.

MCCAMMON: Portland police records indicate that many types of incidences are - of offenses are down compared to past years. How does this justify that response?

CUCCINELLI: Well, we're 49 straight days into violence and destruction in Portland. So it justifies the response because violence and destruction continue, including directed at federal law enforcement, at federal property. And as long as that continues, we're going to continue to attempt to enforce the law.

MCCAMMON: Are local law enforcement...

CUCCINELLI: It's not made any easier when you have somebody like Mayor Wheeler, who holds back, to a certain extent, his own law enforcement. For instance, they don't allow them to utilize certain nonlethal tactics and so forth. So it makes everybody's job harder.

MCCAMMON: What is the legal justification, though, for federal agents - not local officers - making arrests away from federal property?

CUCCINELLI: The legal justification is that they are people suspected of damaging or attacking federal personnel or property. That's the justification. That's the basis for jurisdiction.

MCCAMMON: The U.S. attorney in Oregon is calling for an investigation, as are both of Oregon's senators. Would you support an investigation?

CUCCINELLI: Well, we are - we welcome - the more investigations, the better. With as much lawbreaking is going on, we're seeking to prosecute as many people as are breaking the law as it relates to federal jurisdiction. That's not always happening with respect to local jurisdiction and local offenses. But, you know, this is a posture we intend to continue not just in Portland but in any of the facilities that we're responsible for around the country.

MCCAMMON: Acting U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan has said that DHS is going to take a stand when it comes to the protests. Normally, your agency is in charge of combating things like drug trafficking and terrorism. Why do you think racial justice protests warrant a response from DHS?

CUCCINELLI: Well, first of all, I don't grant that everyone involved here is dealing with racial justice. We're talking only about violent rioters. We're not talking about actual protesters. We're not seeking to interfere at all with anyone peacefully expressing themselves - period, full stop. And a much unheard of - a much unknown agency, the Federal Protective Service, is responsible for protecting thousands around the country. That is an agency within the Department of Homeland Security. And the CBP agents that you saw backing them up are doing just that. They are there cross designated to support FPS, not the other way around. We're helping them do their job because of the demand for more manpower in light of the violence.

MCCAMMON: I'm going to have to stop you there. That's Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Ken Cuccinelli.

Thank you for joining us.

CUCCINELLI: Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.