An investigative piece by The New York Times today reveals that the FBI stationed undercover agents to infiltrate the protest movement in Portland, Oregon, and other cities. Begun in the violent aftermath of the protests and violence in Portland after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the operation continued past the inauguration of President Joe Biden.
The Times piece is notable for setting out the complex issues involved in this operation. On one hand, Portland protesters had started fires, smashed windows and threatened a federal courthouse. One protester attacked a federal officer with a hammer.
On the other hand, positioning the eyes and ears of the government inside a protest movement weakens the First Amendment rights of the peaceful. According to The New York Times, some in the Department of Justice and FBI worried that the practice could easily slip into the COINTELPRO practices of a previous era, when the federal government routinely and widely surveilled political dissenters.
That internal debate – and The Times’ thorough reporting of it – is a healthy sign. So is continuing vigilance by civil liberties advocates.