The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion By deploying police without badges, Barr threatens force without accountability

Attorney General William P. Barr at the White House on April 1. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

ATTORNEY GENERAL William P. Barr oversaw the deployment of a show of military force in the District in response to protests in recent days. His “flood the zone” strategy included the use of men in military tactical gear without any markings to indicate their names or agencies where they work. He thus took a page from the dictator’s handbook, threatening force without any accountability. It was entirely unnecessary.

In 2014, in Crimea, special forces with no insignia occupied strategic positions on the peninsula, then part of Ukraine, and with stunning swiftness, Russia seized it. Who were those “little green men” with guns and no badges? President Vladimir Putin of Russia later acknowledged they were his country’s forces. The same deception was also used when Russia instigated war in eastern Ukraine.

Mr. Putin had something to hide — his violent subterfuge. Who has something to hide now on the streets of the District? Why did these unmarked troops refuse to identify themselves when asked by journalists and protesters? A Justice Department official told The Post’s Devlin Barrett that there has been no instruction for federal agents not to identify themselves, and that it may have happened because “the mobilization happened so quickly.” This is an inadequate response. Troops do not run out the door and just forget to wear insignia. Was Mr. Barr in control of his forces? Were they were ordered to hide something?

In September 2014, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division criticized the Ferguson, Mo., police department for allowing officers to work without wearing nameplates. The Justice Department said, “Officers wearing name plates while in uniform is a basic component of transparency and accountability. It is a near-universal requirement of sound policing practices and required under some state laws.” Failure to do so “contributes to mistrust and undermines accountability” and conveys a message that officers “may seek to act with impunity.”

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The Daily Beast reported that some of the mystery forces in the District were “special operations teams from the Bureau of Prisons.” The bureau confirmed this in a statement to NBC, saying the “crisis management teams” were sent to Washington and Miami at Mr. Barr’s request, and carry badges but were “not wearing BOP specific clothing as they are serving a broader mission.” This is another lame explanation. Mr. Barr also personally authorized the clearing of peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square on Monday so President Trump could walk to his photo op at St. John’s Episcopal Church. Two U.S. Park Police officers have been put on administrative leave after video showed Australian reporter Amanda Brace and cameraman Tim Myers being assaulted while reporting live on that melee. Was Mr. Barr in control of the Park Police, too?

The Justice Department’s inspector general and Congress ought to seek answers. In a democracy, where law enforcement works for the people and not against them, it must be identifiable — and accountable.

Read more:

Robert Kagan: The Battle of Lafayette Square and the undermining of American democracy

George F. Will: The military officers aiding Trump’s stunt have been promoted to the level of their incompetence

Max Boot: The entire Republican Party is complicit in the assault on Lafayette Square

Salman Rushdie: I’ve seen dictators rise and fall. Beware, America.

Jennifer Rubin: How the United States might have condemned the Trump regime