Contractors Are Part of the Team in Trump’s ‘Law and Order’ Blitzkrieg
A listing of federal security-firm contractors in U.S. cities being targeted by Trump reveals the players to keep an eye on
Sometimes, even the professional media fact-checkers need to be fact-checked.
That’s the case with a Poynter Institute “PolitiFact” online posting about the use of private contractors in President Trump’s federal troop deployments, which are focused on quelling protests in cities like Portland, Oregon, and Seattle. They are among more than dozen cities that Trump has targeted for such deployments, with the secretive camouflage-clad federal troops sent to Portland this summer receiving the most press attention to date.
For now, the federal troop deployments under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are supposed to be limited to buildings owned or leased by the U.S. government — though pending ACLU of Oregon litigation alleges their law-enforcement activities have been excessive and strayed well beyond federal property. The forces are being led by DHS’ Federal Protective Service (FPS), which employs some 15,000 private security contractors, according to recent information from FPS officials.
The contractors have a range of skills and training, with many authorized to carry weapons and some even required to have top secret clearances. They work for dozens of private companies that contract with FPS — including Blackwater corporate descendant Triple Canopy and a subsidiary of Sweden-based Securitas called Paragon Systems Inc.
The PolitiFact online posting, however, makes the following claim about the FPS private contractors:
The Federal Protective Service oversees more than 13,000 contract security guards who “conduct security screenings at federal buildings,” according to a 2015 Homeland Security fact sheet. Those contracts made up about 70% of the FPS budget during the 2015 fiscal year.
However, public officials have made no public statements about using defense contractors in lieu of federal agents to quell protests in Portland. And we could find no news reports or public documents that say that’s the case.
As worded, the statement in the PolitiFact posting is technically correct — other than its failure to consider a series of Medium stories and associated documents and officials quoted in them as “news reports.” In the main, the PolitiFact statement’s veracity rests on the use of the following words: “in lieu of federal agents.” In fact, the private security contractors (not “defense contractors”) are working alongside federal agents in these blended deployments as part of their normal duties, which include patrolling property grounds and assisting with crowd control and intelligence-gathering during civil disturbances — such as protests that become unruly.
There is plenty of evidence of the active role private security contractors are playing at federal properties that is laid out in the series of stories reported through Medium, which can be found at this link. That evidence includes confirmation from FPS officials that contractors are present at federal facilities where Trump’s federal troops have been deployed and also the following assessment from a former high-level DHS “public official.”
FPS exists to protect federal infrastructure and buildings, says Noah Kroloff, who served as chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) during the Obama administration. Its workforce is more than 90% contractors, he adds, with the balance being federal employees — including some 1,000 sworn federal law-enforcement agents.
“I am 100 percent certain that there are contractors that are protecting the federal buildings in these cities and states [where Trump is deploying federal law enforcers],” says Kroloff, now a principal and the co-founder of Washington, D.C.-based security-consulting firm GSIS. “And I think it’s safe to assume that if they are deployed at federal buildings, then they are serving in some capacity in crowd control — at a minimum around the perimeter of the buildings. They do certainly have the authority when a federal building is threatened to respond.”
Still, these DHS federal troop deployments, dubbed Operation Diligent Valor in Portland, remain clouded in mystery and under the control of the acting head of DHS, Chad Wolf — who is in the job illegally, according to the watchdog U.S. Government Accountability Office. In addition, parallel federal agent deployments to Democrat-led U.S. cities such as Chicago and Albuquerque, under an effort dubbed Operation Legend, are being overseen by the Department of Justice (DOJ) in coordination with DHS. The DOJ component is under the control of Attorney General William Barr, who has been accused of “weaponizing” DOJ to help Trump win re-election
Critics of Trump’s federal troop deployments raise the concern that the president may in the future deploy FPS private contractors to assist with “the protection” of U.S. Post Office assets, which are key to mail-in voting efforts, or even to select polling locations under the pretext of securing federal critical infrastructure against disruptive protesters. The real goal, however, critics argue, would be to suppress the vote, particularly in swing states, by targeting heavily Democratic cities with large black populations.
Trump, for his part, claims he is simply doing his job in ensuring law and order in the country, even as he coddles and excuses white supremacists, militia members and wannabe members who have perpetrated much of the bloodshed to date during civil rights protests around the country.
In the interest of illuminating the shortcomings of the PolitiFact posting and to arm voters with information that will help them in monitoring the nature and legality of future federal troop deployments, a listing has been prepared from federal contracting data showing which FPS private contractors are working in which cities that have been targeted by Trump to date. That information is displayed in the chart below.
We don’t know as of now what Trump has in mind for election day in November, or in the months leading up to or following it. We do know he has shown a willingness to bend, even break, the law to achieve his ends. We also know that he has shown a propensity to use his pardon power to inoculate otherwise criminal activity.
The relationships that the private contracting firms now have with FPS are perfectly legal, even if their use raises concerns about the adequacy of security-personnel training, FPS’ vetting of private contractors and, in general, overall accountability. All of those issues are explored in the five-story Medium series, which can be found at this link.
Again, from a story in that series:
Elizabeth Goitein echoed that concern over voter suppression, linking it directly to the recent [DHS] federal law-enforcement deployments to U.S. cities, such as Portland.
“Congress and the courts must step in. Otherwise, having found his army, Trump is sure to use it again in coming months,” she wrote in a recent column. “Bullying Democratic mayors and governors plays well with his base, whose support was beginning to waver due to Trump’s disastrous mishandling of Covid-19.
“More chilling, he could deploy his paramilitary forces in Democratic strongholds on Election Day as a means of suppressing voter turnout,” warns Goitein, who is codirector of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty & National Security Program.
What will these private FPS contractors do if commanded, under orders from Trump, to step into a gray area of the law, or to even cross the line?
What kind of leverage do Trump, Barr and Wolf have over these private contractors, whose revenue streams are highly dependent on federal contracts? What do the existing contracts themselves already allow for, with a little clever lawyering? (We know, for example, that they can include provisions requiring contractors to surge in additional personnel as needed in crisis situations, such as during civil disturbances.)
Those questions will be answered in time. Until then, it makes sense to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Transparency, and fact-checking in context, make that possible in a democracy.