Return to site

Who Are Those Masked Men?


This weekend, videographer Andrew Kimmel captured an unforgettable--and painful--exchange between a Viet Nam vet and a line of unidentified cops. It's heartbreaking and somehow emblematic of the escalating crisis fostered by the Trump administration's disproportionate response to mainly peaceful protests in support of Black Lives Matter.

Now these protests, which were waning, have gathered momentum, and so has the scrutiny of the riot police.

Reporters are digging deep to identify the tactical units the Trump administration is sending to major U.S. cities like Portland, Seattle, and Chicago, all of which are run by Democratic mayors. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is coordinating the effort, and, so far, it appears that it's made up of special forces from the U.S. Border Patrol and the U.S. Marshals, along with a lesser known agency called the Federal Protective Service. We're particularly interested in the last one. Who are these masked men? Are there limits on what they can do?

There are 900 officers in the Federal Protective Service, tasked with protecting over 9,000 federal buildings and their occupants. The actual number of FPS agents is inconsequential compared to the number of contract employees, which is estimated at 13,000.

These contractors--ranging from security guards to mercenary soldiers--work for major private-sector companies like Triple Canopy, which merged several years ago with the private military contract Academi, the corporate descendant of Blackwater, the mercenary outfit founded by Erik Prince. (Yes, that Erik Prince: Betsy DeVos' brother, the avid Trump supporter investigated for meeting with a close associate of Vladimir Putin in the Seychelles in 2017. Pure coincidence, according to Prince; one U.S. official remarked that two days was an awfully long time for a chance meeting.) Prince sold the business to a group of investors in 2010.

broken image

 According to investigative journalist Bill Conroy, the Federal Protective Service spends $1 billion a year on contract security guards for federal properties. (Conroy has the government documents.)

But we digress. U.S. Government Accountability Office reports published between 2009 and 2014, and obtained by Conroy, reveal more about these contractors. The Federal Protective Service has hired private guards with felony convictions; a large percentage with at least one expired certification, including a declaration they have not been convicted of domestic violence; and multiple security-guard files are missing documentation on weapons training and security clearances.

In other words, these are your prototypical "mercs," many of whom are out-of-work soldiers left behind by America's decades-long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Private military contracting is a lucrative business, in these days of privatization. One security firm, Paragon Systems, Inc., signed a deal in 2013 with a total contract ceiling of $93.4 million for Ohio federal facilities alone, Conroy reported.

Like Triple Canopy, the U.S. Border Patrol, once a sleepy agency of underpaid and often corrupt underachievers and the lowest rung in federal law enforcement, has aggressively reached out to hire military veterans. The Border Patrol officers detailed to Portland are part of BORTAC, 120 highly trained commandos in the Border Patrol's version of Special Forces. The Trump administration told the Wall Street Journal that approximately 45 BORTAC officers are part of the 100-person force deployed in Portland.

The commando unit was founded in 1984. Based in El Paso, it has since expanded its mission to conduct high-risk raids, perform intelligence gathering at the border, and train foreign law enforcement.

BORTAC has worked in nearly 30 countries, including Honduras and El Salvador, where its officers have conducted training, in the words of one agent, of "pro-democracy police forces."

In Portland, federal authorities confirm that BORTAC commandos have ventured beyond the immediate vicinity of federal buildings and arrested at least two protesters.

On the other side, protesters have not been uniformly non-violent. In Portland, officers told an Associated Press reporter that they feared for their lives, as protesters set off commercial-grade fireworks, threw rocks, and used a grinder to dismantle a fence surrounding the Mark O. Hatfield federal building.

Along with the rocks, protesters threw rubber balls and potatoes, reportedly to cause officers to lose their footing.

Video by Andrew Kimmel @andrewkimmel

Kimmel has been on the frontlines shooting video in Portland and he wouldn't mind some support. or venmo - TheAndrewKimmel