Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee and a Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq, said the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies should not allow their officers to wear camouflage.
“They need to stop this charade and stop pretending they’re the military. They need to put their ICE uniforms and CBP uniforms back on,” he told The Washington Post, referring to federal immigration officers and Customs and Border Protection.
The public has at turns mistaken police for soldiers since the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in late May triggered demonstrations and civil unrest. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper was concerned about that conflation during protests in Washington last month, his chief spokesman, Jonathan Hoffman, said Tuesday.
“We want a system where people can tell the difference,” he said, adding that Esper has expressed those concerns within the Trump administration.
The blurring of the line between military and civilian law enforcement has been fueled in part by viral videos and photos of the DHS officers’ actions, former officials and lawmakers said.
“Unidentified military are kidnapping protestors in Portland,” the Lincoln Project, a political action group critical of President Trump, incorrectly told its Twitter followers. The group repeated the assertion in a tweet paired with a campaign video that received more than 9 million views.
“It’s not good for our democracy,” David Lapan, a former Marine officer who served as DHS spokesman under Trump in 2017, told The Post. “The public should not feel there is a militarized response to civil unrest.”
Tom Ridge, who served as the first U.S. secretary of homeland security, said during an interview Tuesday with broadcaster Michael Smerconish that DHS was established to protect the country “from the ever-present threat of global terrorism.”
“It was not established to be the president’s personal militia,” he said.
Federal officers in D.C., Portland and elsewhere have worn what is generally called the operational camouflage pattern, or multicam — a smattering of brown, green and beige daubs adopted by the Army for use in Afghanistan in 2010. It has since become the daily wear for Army soldiers and is being fielded by the Air Force.
It is also what National Guardsmen typically wore on the streets of Washington last month during protests, with federal officers often in similar patterns. The soldiers and police intermixed and sometimes swapped gear, further spreading confusion. In one instance, Federal Bureau of Prisons officers in blue shirts stood behind riot shields marked “MILITARY POLICE.” Witnesses told The Post they mistook them for National Guard soldiers.
Part of the Pentagon’s after-action review of the National Guard response to civil unrest focused on whether law enforcement personnel should be wearing camouflage, Hoffman said. After the review is complete, Esper may discuss the findings with Attorney General William P. Barr and acting DHS secretary Chad Wolf, Hoffman said.
CBP sees itself as a paramilitary organization and has become more emboldened as the Trump administration increasingly uses it and other federal law enforcement to respond to violence, Lapan said.
But the agency’s mission is law enforcement, Lapan said, not warfare. And its use of military garb, he said, can jumble those missions and misses the point of camouflage in the first place.
“The purpose of camouflage is to blend in and not be visible,” said Lapan, now the vice president of communications for the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank. “As a law enforcement officer, you shouldn’t be blending in. That defeats the purpose.”
CBP has defended the use of the camouflage and said it was not aware of any confusion.
“This is the standard uniform for these agents and has been since 2015,” CBP said in a statement. “It is a pattern chosen to be appropriate for any operational environment.”
Mark A. Morgan, the acting CBP commissioner, pushed back against assertions that his officers were difficult to identify. They had agency patches and police emblazoned on their vests, he told reporters Tuesday, but their names were removed to protect their identities after officers were doxed.
The use of Customs and Border Protection and other agencies as a de facto national police force could erode that trust, said Carrie Cordero, a former Justice Department national security attorney and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank.
“An agency in military-style uniforms pulling people off the streets is a place we don’t want to be,” she said. The solution for DHS is simple, she said — return to duty uniforms. CBP officers are already well known for being in blue uniforms, while Border Patrol, for instance, wears green.
Three House Democrats issued a statement saying the federal officers in Portland may “sully the reputation” of service members.
Gallego said perceptions of the military’s involvement in breaking up protests can have long-lasting effects.
Young people loosely following the protests and the use of force are in the prime recruiting age for the military, he said, and if the conflation endures, “they’re not going to view the military as an organization to protect your rights.”
Limiting the scope of DHS authority and mission and instituting training that emphasizes de-escalation could be places to start, he said — along with clearly presented uniforms — following initial confusion of which agencies were on the streets in Portland.
“There needs to be accountability,” Gallego said. “We’re not going to have that with people hiding who they are.”
Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.