Editor’s Note: Samantha Vinograd is a CNN national security analyst. She is a senior adviser at the University of Delaware’s Biden Institute, which is not affiliated with the Biden campaign. Vinograd served on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council from 2009 to 2013 and at the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush. Follow her @sam_vinograd. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
In Washington, DC, alone, there has been a dizzying array of security personnel deployed in the last few days. From members of the military to DC police to the US Bureau of Prisons, the streets have become an alphabet soup of acronyms when it comes to law enforcement and security personnel, all designated – by various levels of government – to seemingly promote safety. But, as Americans countrywide exercise their constitutional right to protest peacefully, unnecessary assaults on democratic freedoms and civil liberties have proliferated.
Amid the tear gas and rubber bullets, a dangerous Trump trend has arisen. While DC police are required by law to wear badges, unidentified federal law enforcement officials have been caught on camera with no badges, no identifying information, and with large firearms. Some refused to identify themselves or reportedly gave ambiguous answers after being called out publicly for their unattributable presence. (Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal has said that while Bureau of Prisons staffers don’t typically need to identify themselves because they operate “within the confines of our institution” he probably should have had those in DC wearing some identification.)
If this happened anywhere but here, the US would be issuing strongly worded White House and State Department statements and reviewing other policy options to deter and punish this behavior going forward.
Unmarked officers and “secret police” have been used in authoritarian crackdowns throughout history. We used to refer to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unidentified proxies during his annexation of Crimea as “little green men” for wearing unmarked green uniforms. Unattributable shows of force just shouldn’t happen in American democracy. They’re dangerous on many levels both in the near and longer term.
From a safety perspective, the videos and images of unidentified federal law enforcement personnel standing – heavily armed – in the nation’s capital could have led to immediate security problems. It was – and is – counterproductive to have unidentified law enforcement personnel standing in the streets. Without accreditation or badges of any kind, it is hard for anyone to know whether they have authority to conduct law enforcement missions. How would protesters or anyone these personnel may seek to question, search, or even arrest be aware they have the power to take such action?
The failure to clearly and credibly identify all federal law enforcement personnel also creates a heightened security risk. With armed Americans showing up at protests, the lack of identification makes it far too easy for vigilantes either to blend in with the law enforcement officers or spuriously claim authority they don’t have. It’s confusing and potentially dangerous for Americans exercising their constitutional rights and for other military and law enforcement officers trying to distinguish private citizens from security personnel. A heavily armed officer in tactical gear, with no clearly identifying insignia, is nearly indistinguishable from a militia member trying to terrorize peaceful protestors.
Plus, while Attorney General William Barr defended the fact that some federal personnel may not have identified themselves, the failure to identify federal law enforcement personnel endangers accountability if there need to be investigations into their actions. It is much easier to act with impunity if there’s no fear of attribution. A law enforcement officer’s shield or badge connotes authority, but also helps to ensure responsible behavior.
Recognizing the risks associated with this Trump trend, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has sent a letter to the President asking for an accounting of the full list of agencies involved and clarification on their roles and responsibilities. Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have introduced draft legislation that would require federal law enforcement personnel and members of the military to identify themselves as such.
But so far, the “law and order” President – and the attorney general – seem satisfied with unattributable law enforcement personnel roaming our streets, despite the fact that such actions threaten to undermine our law and order. So far, the “law and order” President is OK with Bureau of Prisons personnel positioning themselves with no identifiable information in close proximity to Americans exercising their constitutional rights – or the fact that AG Barr authorized them to make arrests.
Instead, the President seems to be focused on using all law enforcement and security personnel – no matter their specific training, rules of engagement, jurisdiction, or the time they were given to get themselves safely ready to deploy to DC – in a brute show of force. This doesn’t advance law and order, it undermines it. How ironic – and hypocritical – that a president who has tried to depict himself as a victim of out-of-control law enforcement would now appear to champion agents of the state acting with impunity. It is unfortunately just the latest reminder that this President wants “law and order” on his terms, and his terms only.