Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf on Thursday detailed to senators the assaults that federal law enforcement had been subjected to from rioters in Portland -- saying officers had been attacked with weapons including sledgehammers and improvised explosive devices (IED).
"Our federal officers have faced assaults from bricks, baseball bats, sledgehammers, Molotov cocktails, mortar-style commercial-grade fireworks, accelerants, IEDs and other violent weapons," Wolf told lawmakers on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
He also said that Department of Homeland Security (DHS) law enforcement officers have experienced 277 separate injuries from minor to serious, including three officers who may have suffered permanent eye damage from being attacked by lasers.
"This is not the laser your cat or your dog may chase on the ground, this is a very powerful laser," he said.
Days earlier, acting Deputy Ken Cuccinelli had demonstrated to a committee how such lasers can burn within seconds of being shone.
The hearing comes after months of protests and riots hit Portland in the wake of the death of George Floyd. DHS ramped up its presence in July as attacks escalated on the federal Hatfield Courthouse in downtown Portland, and Democrats and state and local officials accused federal authorities of targeting peaceful protesters and escalating the situation with an aggressive approach.
"Instead of working together with state and local partners, you sent a surge of federal personnel who did not have training to deescalate a situation," Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., said.
"Your heavy-handed tactics caused additional chaos and I'm concerned that the singular focus on protecting federal property is distracting the department from the threat posed by domestic terrorism,” he said.
But Wolf said that DHS makes a distinction between peaceful protests and rioters and said that the agency only ramped up presence at the courthouse once existing Federal Protective Service (FPS) presence was being overwhelmed -- arguing that there had been widespread violence long before the deployment.
He said that in other cities there had been violence against federal property, but it had not been to the same extent in Portland because local authorities had cooperation with federal law enforcement.
In Portland, Wolf painted a picture of opportunists taking advantage of protests to turn them violent -- and that it was the decision by local authorities to stop cooperation with federal law enforcement that made the situation worse.
"Unfortunately, what we saw in Portland was a lack of that, that allowed these violent individuals to attack a federal facility night after night with no repercussion, no one holding them accountable so they became more emboldened night after night.
He says weapons became more sophisticated, starting with bricks and cans but increasing as they face no consequences.
"Then they come back with commercial-grade fireworks, then they come back with IEDs, then they come back with power tools. They keep coming back because there's no accountability."
Wolf noted that there has been a decrease in violence in the days since it was announced last week that DHS had come to an agreement for a phased withdrawal of federal law enforcement from the city -- but that violence is still continuing and DHS will not leave until there are assurances the courthouse will not be attacked.
But a number of Democrats on the committee were skeptical of some of Wolf’s assertions.
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif, quizzed Wolf on whether he had spoken to President Trump, White House advisers and members of Trump’s campaign deployment in context to Trump’s reelection campaign. Her question was in relation to concerns from Democrats that the aggressive response was part of President Trump’s efforts to win re-election in November.
Wolf said he had not spoken to campaign officials about that, and he would not be drawn into disclosing his conversations with President Trump.
"Our deployment of law enforcement officers to Portland or in support of Operation Legend are done within DHS authorities and not done for specific political reasons," he said.
Harris also drew on a number of examples of alleged excessive force and targeting of peaceful protesters. She claimed that mothers and pregnant women had been hit by munitions and asked if Wolf has consulted with medical experts on the effects of munitions on pregnant women. He said he hasn't.
"I would advise you to do that," Harris said, to which Wolf responded that munitions are only used between midnight and 5 a.m.