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The battle over federal forces on the ground in Portland

Federal officers on the streets of Portland
Federal officers on the streets of Portland 05:22

Video of men in camouflage snatching a protester off the streets of Portland, Oregon, set off a pandemic of confusion and outrage – confusion about who these men are, and outrage at President Trump's threat to do the same in other cities.

"We're looking at Chicago, too, and we're looking at New York," Mr. Trump said. "Look at what's going on. All run by Democrats. All run by very liberal Democrats."

The Democratic mayor of Chicago, Lori Lightfoot, said she would welcome federal help to fight crime, but wants no part of what she's seen on the streets of Portland. "We don't need federal troops. We don't need unnamed secret federal agents roaming around the streets of Chicago," she said at a press conference Wednesday.

The agents in Portland look like soldiers, but in fact they are members of the Border Patrol far from their usual missions of going after drug smugglers along the Mexican border. 

They are under the command of Acting Director of Homeland Security Chad Wolf.

APTOPIX Racial Injustice Portland
Federal officers use chemical irritants and crowd control munitions to disperse Black Lives Matter protesters outside the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse on Wednesday, July 22, 2020, in Portland, Ore. Noah Berger/AP

"These officers are not military; they are civilian police officers," said Wolf. "These police officers are not stormtroopers. They're not the Gestapo, as some have described them."

Mark Morgan, head of Customs and Border Protection, provided a citizen's guide to the insignia on their uniforms.

"Border Patrol – clearly police. It's marked on the front and the back, clearly, every single agent," said Morgan. 

As Portland's protests continued in the aftermath of George Floyd's death, the Trump administration moved in to protect federal buildings from vandals. Wolf described the targets of these federal officers: "These individuals carry lasers, baseball bats, explosive fireworks, metal pipes, glass bottles, accelerants and other weapons all targeting federal facilities and federal law enforcement."

There are plenty of protestors who do not fit that description – women who call themselves "The Wall of Moms." 

And Naval Academy graduate Christopher David, who stood his ground – but did not appear to threaten – the federal agents.

"They kept hitting me, and he eventually hit my hand and broke it," David said. "I needed to stay as calm as possible. I had no idea what these guys were capable of."

WEB EXTRA COMMENTARY: Christopher David: "Our city has been turned into a war zone intentionally"

Even Portland's Democratic mayor, Ted Wheeler, who does not want these federal agents in his city, got hit with tear gas. "I saw nothing which provoked this response," said Wheeler, who called it "urban warfare." 

"Never have I seen it before where the federal government has imposed its will on the state and says, 'We're going to do this mission whether you want us here or not,'" said Paul Rosenzweig, who served in the Department of Homeland Security under Republican President George W. Bush.

CBS News national security correspondent David Martin asked, "It's unprecedented. Is it legal?"

"It is probably on the borderlines of legal," Rosenzweig replied.

The Department of Homeland Security was created in the anxious days after 9/11 when another attack was feared: "Terrorist attacks by al Qaeda or a nuclear weapon or a biological threat," said Rosenzweig. "Never did we contemplate that they would actually be used against American citizens. And that's where the authority has been stretched beyond all recognition."

And here's what most people don't know about DHS: "The Department of Homeland Security has more law enforcement resources at its disposal than the rest of the federal government combined," Rosenzweig said. "This is kind of the first time that the American public is seeing the reality of that."

Non-military personnel take to the streets of Portland. CBS News

Acting DHS chief Wolf, who traveled to Portland to inspect the damage, said it is all about protecting federal property. But in addition to tear gas, there is more than a whiff of politics in the air. Rosenzweig said, "The acting secretary has chosen to essentially declare war on a segment of the American populace. It's transparently a political exercise."

Martin asked, "Transparently political? What do you mean?"

"This is, I think, clearly part and parcel of President Trump's ongoing political effort to demonize the left, to try and make this election about cultural issues, and to scare the American public into voting for him," Rosenzweig replied.

However the Battle of Portland ends, there is something else at stake. 

Martin asked, "What does it do to the image and reputation of the Department of Homeland Security?"

"This incident is going to do lasting damage to the department," Rosenzweig said. "I think that the department is a necessary component of our national security apparatus. But this is going to do nothing but give ammunition to those who think of the department as a rogue police force that ought not to exist."

CBS News

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Story produced by Mary Walsh. Editor: Steven Tyler. 

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