On July 25 2020, a rumor spread on Facebook that that individuals patrolling Portland in military uniform (sometimes snatching people off the street) were private contractors, and that they were working for a company called “Black River”:
The post read:
So it appears that the soldiers in Portland are actually contractors for Black River. That is the firm USA hires to provide security in the Middle East. Mercenaries actually. Black River is owned by Betsy DeVos brother.
Versions of this claim spread on Twitter, too:
Blackwater, a private military contractor is said to be involved in Portland protests.
— This madness MUST END! (@jamijturner) July 23, 2020
Who are the ‘Soldiers in Portland’?
On July 10 2020, the Associated Press covered reports about a military presence at protests, describing the officers as broadly attached to the Department of Homeland Security:
The Department of Homeland Security has deployed officers in tactical gear from around the country, and from more than a half-dozen federal law enforcement agencies and departments, to Portland, Oregon, as part of a surge aimed at what a senior official said were people taking advantage of demonstrations over the police killing of George Floyd to engage in violence and vandalism.
The DHS officers’ presence comes at an incredibly tense moment for Portland. After Floyd’s death, the city for days saw marches and rallies that attracted more than 10,000 generally peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters to the downtown area. The police took a “mostly hands-off approach” to those events because they were orderly, Davis said.
The same article described a collaboration between CBP and “other agencies” as part of a task force assembled following a June 26 2020 executive order enacted to “protect monuments”:
Following the executive order, DHS created the Protecting American Communities Task Force and sent officers from Customs and Border Protection and other agencies to Washington, D.C., Seattle and Portland. Others were ready to deploy elsewhere if needed.
On July 20 2020, the New York Times reported that protesters were being snatched from the streets and herded into unmarked vans without cause or due process:
Christopher J. David had largely ignored the protests in downtown Portland, Ore., but when he saw videos of unidentified federal agents grabbing protesters off the street and throwing them into rented minivans, he felt compelled to act.
Mr. David, a Navy veteran, said that federal agents’ use of violent tactics against protesters, without the support of the mayor, the governor or local law enforcement, was a violation of the oaths that agents take to support, uphold and defend the Constitution.
And so, on [July 18 2020], he took a bus downtown to ask the officers how they squared their actions with that oath.
Instead of getting an answer, Mr. David was beaten with a baton by one federal officer as another doused him with pepper spray, according to video footage of the encounter. After he walked away from the confrontation, Mr. David was taken to a nearby hospital, where a specialist said his right hand was broken and would require surgery to install pins, screws and plates. He declined pain medication.
That story did not address the military presence other than describing them as “federal agents.”
Also on July 20 2020, CNN covered national interest in the affiliation of the agents in camouflage seen in videos and described by protesters, reporting that CBP confirmed that some of the agents were indeed theirs:
The US Attorney for the Oregon District on [July 17 2020] requested an investigation into the masked, camouflaged federal authorities without identification badges who are arresting protesters in Portland.
The request is aimed specifically at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) personnel who have been captured on various videos arresting protesters and putting them in unmarked SUVs.
Oregon’s governor and Portland’s mayor demanded the troops be withdrawn and a US senator joined them in condemning the arrests.
“Authoritarian governments, not democratic republics, send unmarked authorities after protesters,” tweeted US Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat representing Oregon. Merkley also tweeted one video of such an arrest showing two masked, camouflaged individuals with generic “police” patches, detain a person dressed in a black outfit and place them in an unmarked van before driving away.
US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) admitted to being one of the agencies involved in arresting protesters.
“Violent anarchists have organized events in Portland over the last several weeks with willful intent to damage and destroy federal property, as well as, injure federal officers and agents,” the agency said in a statement to CNN. “These criminal actions will not be tolerated.”
Our personnel are clearly marked as federal LEOs & have unique identifiers. You will not see names on their uniforms b/c these same violent criminals use this information to target them & their families, putting both at risk. As Acting Commissioner, I will not let that happen!
— CBP Mark Morgan (@CBPMarkMorgan) July 17, 2020
Jeh Johnson Talks to Rachel Maddow
In a July 21 2020 clip shared by MSNBC, former Department of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson discussed the agents’ affiliation with MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, identifying the agents as part of the Federal Protective Service.
Just after the 1:20 mark, Johnson made statements which migrated to social media with no news item attached:
… Interestingly, most members of the Federal Protective Service are actually private contractors … and then in addition to that, what the acting secretary has done … is to also deploy components of Immigration Customs Enforcement [ICE] and Customs Border Protection [CBP] … uh, that are specially trained or special operations … they do wear camouflage, but they’re supposed to wear emblems. Patches, that indicate that they’re federal law enforcement.
The Federal Protective Service has its own page on DHS.gov, but entries about the branches of DHS are short.
‘So it Appears that the Soldiers in Portland are Actually Contractors for Black River’
The poster’s reference to “soldiers [who] are actually contractors for Black River” appears to actually be a claim that the agents were supplied by the infamous private mercenary group Blackwater, a “private military” known for having agents in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Although Blackwater was known to many Americans, that name was retired. In 2009, Blackwater became Xe Services, and in 2011, Xe Services became Academi:
Academi is an American private military company founded in 1997 by former Navy SEAL officer Erik Prince as Blackwater, renamed as Xe Services in 2009 and known as Academi since 2011 after the company was acquired by a group of private investors. The company received widespread notoriety in 2007, when a group of its employees killed 14 Iraqi civilians and injured 20 in Nisour Square, Baghdad for which four guards were convicted in a U.S. court.
As such, the agents would not be supplied by “Black River” or Blackwater, since the name had twice changed since 2009.
It is widespread knowledge that Blackwater was founded by Erik Prince, brother to the Trump administration’s Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.
In March 2020, Prince was in the news for purported efforts to recruit former spies to infiltrate “Democratic campaigns and liberal groups”:
Prince, a longtime informal adviser to President Donald Trump and the brother of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, reportedly helped recruit former American and British spies for “secretive intelligence-gathering operations” that included spying on congressional campaigns, labor groups and “other groups considered hostile to the Trump agenda” in an effort to aid Project Veritas, a conservative group that tries to embarrass Democrats, liberal groups and members of the media through hidden camera stings.
The Intercept first reported [in 2019] that Prince hired a former MI-6 officer and funded spy training for the group after taking an interest in their work during the 2016 presidential campaign. The former MI-6 spy, Richard Seddon, helped run an operation to secretly record officials at the Michigan office of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and release files that could “damage the organization,” according to documents obtained by The Times.
Seddon wrote that one of his operatives “copied a great many documents from the file room.” In another email obtained by The Times, Seddon mentioned a recording that featured a local union leader discussing DeVos. That same operative reportedly infiltrated former CIA officer Abigail Spanberger’s Democratic congressional campaign in Virginia but was discovered and fired.
DHS Issues a ‘Myth vs. Fact’ Press Release; a Self-Published Medium.com Post Circulates
On July 28 2020, DHS published “Myth vs. Fact: 50+ Nights of Violence, Chaos, and Anarchy in Portland, Oregon,” sidestepping questions about the affiliation of the uniformed individuals in Portland.
A few days earlier, a post on self-publishing platform Medium.com (“The Lead Federal Agency Responding to Protesters in Portland Employs Thousands of Private Contractors”) claimed that the agents were private contractors, pointing to January 2020 appropriations documents:
What has not been reported widely in the media, however, is the fact that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) unit that is coordinating the “crowd control” effort — an agency called the Federal Protective Service (FPS) — is composed largely of contract security personnel. Those contractors are being furnished to FPS by major private-sector security companies like Blackwater corporate descendant Triple Canopy as well as dozens of other private security firms.
In fact, FPS spends more than $1 billion a year on these contract security guards who are authorized to conduct crowd control at federal properties, such as those in Portland. And, based on available photographic and document evidence, it appears those private contractors are now part of the federal force arrayed in Portland and are likely to be part of the federal response President Trump has promised to stand up in multiple other cities, including Chicago, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia and other urban centers led by Democratic mayors across the country.
There are some 13,000 security guards nationwide employed by FPS via contracts with private security firms, a figure that can be expanded through existing and future contracts. Via contracts with FPS, more than 50 private security firms provide guards — referred to as protective security officers (PSOs) — to the agency in the Washington, D.C., area alone.
A portion of that item involved additional speculation from an anonymous source:
“This concerns me, as FPS officers train with us at the federal law-enforcement training center in Glynco, Georgia,” [a] former Secret Service officer said, asking that his name not be used. “I can assure you that a contract officer isn’t law-enforcement certified. …This sounds very shady, and it sounds like a lawsuit waiting to happen.”
The post’s author surmised (based on appropriations alongside images and videos) that the FPS agents were composed “largely of contract security personnel.” However, we were unable to verify to our own satisfaction whether the FPS response primarily involved private contractors.
A popular Facebook post and separate tweets claimed that unidentified individuals in uniform detaining protesters in Portland were primarily private contractors, namely those attached to the Blackwater firm owned by Betsy DeVos’ brother Erik Prince. Prince is DeVos’ brother, but Blackwater was renamed twice and is now called Academi. Meanwhile, Customs and Border Protection confirmed that some of the agents are theirs and that the involved agency is the Federal Protective Service, acting under a June 2020 executive order to “protect monuments.” How many — if any — of the agents are private security contractors remains unknown, due mainly to the lack of transparency surrounding the federal troops.