Barr was tapped by President Trump to direct the national response to protests and riots over police misconduct since the police-custody death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The attorney general has focused much of his attention on the District, where unrest and arrests swelled over the weekend before a jarring clash Monday to clear peaceful protesters from outside the White House — an order Barr issued personally. By Tuesday night, as he sat in the FBI command center until nearly midnight, the city’s mood seemed to have calmed.
One Justice Department official said Barr’s strategy is to “flood the zone” by putting “the maximum amount of law enforcement out on the street. . . . The peacefulness is in large part due to the large law enforcement presence.” Like others, this official spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations.
While large protests Tuesday night included thousands of people breaking the city’s curfew, Barr and his advisers reason that as long as such activities are peaceful, they are not going to be challenged by federal enforcers.
Still, while Barr may be restoring order, his outsize role in the administration has made many uncomfortable. Monday’s episode outside the White House has proven especially galling for some, including Trump’s former defense secretary, Jim Mattis, who on Wednesday issued a pointed rebuke.
“We know that we are better than the abuse of executive authority that we witnessed in Lafayette Square,” the retired general wrote. “We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution.”
The display of federal might — in the District and other restive cities where protests have turned destructive — includes military vehicles at many intersections, helicopter flyovers, federal law enforcement agents assigned to patrol and investigate possible crimes, street closures and checkpoints. Troubling to some has been the presence of personnel, some heavily armed, clad in tactical attire bearing no identifiable insignia. The Justice Department itself has in the past criticized such a lack of transparency, saying it foments mistrust.
On the night he took charge of the effort, Barr walked the streets to see for himself how personnel were deployed.
Some law enforcement experts contend the dramatic scenes are counterproductive in the long run, affirming the very criticism leveled by protesters — that police and government officials treat citizens unjustly.
“The heavy hand is a smack in the face, and the danger is that it may make things worse,” said Dennis Kenney, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York with expertise in police response to protests. “It really does communicate something about where those who are in charge think our society sits right now. We’re in the process of demonstrating to the people who are out in the streets that they are right to be there.”
Kenney said he was struck by the president’s walk Monday to a church near the White House, under a phalanx of armed guards. It reminded him of when he advised a government minister in Yemen that he should use a soft touch on protests. The minister refused and, in six months, could not safely travel anywhere beyond his home and his office.
The Justice Department official said such criticism was unwarranted. “What would be the alternative, letting people burn down the city?” the official asked. “The force is necessary to restore order and civility so people can go ahead with their lives because, prior to this, things were really getting out of hand. This only benefits everyone.”
Barr has said the government must “dominate” the streets to restore order and put an end to the looting, rioting and vandalism that has marred Washington, New York, Minneapolis and elsewhere.
From the FBI command center, the attorney general coordinates with the Pentagon and a variety of federal agencies fanned out across the capital. Tennessee and Florida announced Wednesday they were sending National Guard troops to the city to further beef up those efforts. Barr has also ordered agents with the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Marshals and the Bureau of Prisons to help protect the city.
Aides said Barr has also logged hours at FBI headquarters, overseeing the national response efforts, focused not just on the broad efforts but the minutiae of the government response.
Justice Department officials took the sharp drop in arrests Tuesday night as a sign that the strategy is working. While the crowds of protesters were as large or larger than previous nights, there was far less property destruction or violence compared with previous evenings.
A second Justice Department official said Wednesday that that there has been “a tremendous amount of restraint” shown by D.C. police and the other law enforcement agencies. The official said that that so far, none of those arrested have been accused of being part of extremist groups, but investigators are still examining the backgrounds of some and scrutinizing social media posts for evidence of anyone who may be organizing, orchestrating or encouraging violence amid the protests.
“We can exploit phones, data communications to see if there is a coordinated command and control. That’s what we’re looking for,” the official said.
A central focus in Barr’s effort is steering criminal cases into the federal system, where suspects are likely to face stiffer prison sentences. As part of that push, two Minnesota men were charged Tuesday with firebombing a local court office building.
According to a criminal complaint, Garrett Patrick Ziegler, 24, and Fornandous Cortez Henderson, 32, were charged with arson and possession of molotov cocktails after detectives in Apple Valley, Minn., found a set of car keys near the crime scene that led them to the suspects.
The case was turned over to federal prosecutors and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
As in the Minnesota case, ATF is helping local police departments with arson investigations related to the unrest, while other agents are helping patrol public spaces. Other federal agencies are also taking up cases involving violence or vandalism related to the protests. About a dozen people have been charged federally in such cases, and scores more are under investigation, according to officials.
On Wednesday evening, authorities announced the arrest of three men in Las Vegas on charges of conspiring to cause destruction at protests in that city. Federal authorities said the three men identified with the “boogaloo” movement, a far-right extremist ideology that seeks to spark a civil war.
The DEA has received special permission to go beyond its standard legal mandate of investigating drug-related crimes to also investigate crimes related to the protests, according to an internal document first reported by BuzzFeed News.
The Justice Department authorization, which lasts for 14 days, allows the DEA to conduct “covert surveillance” and share intelligence with state and local officials, as well as patrol public places and make arrests for non-drug crimes as officials see fit. A DEA spokeswoman declined to comment.
It is unusual for federal agents to engage in such duties, but they have been pressed into service by Barr, who has called the public vandalism and violence surrounding the protests “domestic terrorism.”
Some of the federal agents deployed around Washington have been wearing military-style tactical gear with no markings to indicate their names or the agencies for which they work. Six years ago, the Justice Department criticized the Ferguson, Mo., police department for allowing its officers to work without wearing nameplates.
“Officers wearing name plates while in uniform is a basic component of transparency and accountability,” the Justice Department’s civil rights division wrote at the time. “It is a near-universal requirement of sound policing practices. . . . Allowing officers to remain anonymous when they interact with the public contributes to mistrust and undermines accountability.”
A Justice Department official said there has been no instruction for federal agents to not identify themselves, but the mobilization happened so quickly, “they’re using the gear that’s available. . . . There is so much surveillance that’s going on that I feel confident nothing is going to happen here that isn’t video recorded.”
Kenney, the policing expert, said federal law enforcement agents are a poor fit for what should be the twin goals of government: using National Guard troops to protect the protesters and using police in reserve to pursue any lawbreakers.
“What the DEA and all the other federal law enforcement agencies are going to contribute is totally beyond me,” said Kenney. “They’re of little value and should be cleared out.”
Democrats have also criticized Barr’s handling of the crisis, particularly the decision to clear Lafayette Square of protesters just before the president’s walk to get his photo taken outside a church. On Wednesday, four senior House Democrats wrote to Barr seeking answers about that decision and declaring that “the use of federal personnel to prevent American citizens from exercising their Constitutional right to peaceably assemble represents a direct threat to our democracy.”
The FBI’s Washington Field Office, which holds the command center where Barr oversees the government response, issued a statement saying it “respects the rights of individuals to peacefully exercise their First Amendment rights. We are working actively and closely with our local, state, and federal law enforcement partners and are committed to apprehending violent instigators who are exploiting legitimate, peaceful protests and engaging in violations of federal law.”
The attorney general has also instructed the FBI’s joint terrorism task forces to assist in the efforts. Officials said agents in the JTTFs have been assigned to gather video and photo evidence of possible lawbreakers, as well as take tips from local police departments about particular suspects or cases. One official said the JTTFs’ work on identifying criminal activity related to the protests does not mean the agency has changed its rules for how it uses surveillance powers toward Americans — the legal limitations around national security intelligence authorities still apply, the official said.
The government’s show of force has not been welcome or necessary everywhere. As part of the Justice Department effort, Barr ordered special riot control teams from the Bureau of Prisons to deploy in Washington and Miami, where the situation has been relatively calm. Another law enforcement official said the team had not been needed there and would depart.
Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.