Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf defended the department's response to unrest in Portland, Oregon, saying that violence in the city directed at federal property and personnel eventually required him to deploy supplemental law enforcement officers.
Testifying Thursday before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Wolf sought to draw a distinction between the peaceful protests in Portland and the violence directed at the federal courthouse and police officers.
"The department is aware of the national dialogue taking place around racism and law enforcement practices, and we continue to support and defend every American's right to exercise their First Amendment rights," Wolf said.
Wolf blamed local and state officials for providing "little to no" support for DHS officers protecting the federal courthouse.
DHS and Department of Justice officers were "abandoned" due to the dangerous policies by local officials, Wolf said.
The acting secretary testified that DHS personnel remain in Portland as a precaution.
"As of today, the full-augmented DHS law enforcement posture remains in Portland. They will continue to remain until we are assured that the Hatfield federal courthouse, as well as other federal facilities in Portland will no longer be violently attacked," he said.
Making the case to keep officers in the city, Wolf said, over the past seven days Portland police have declared a riot on four occasions, adding that lasers have been directed at officers and "numerous arrests" have been made.
Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, began the hearing cataloging violence across the US in recent weeks, tying it to anti-police rhetoric and protests that spread across the country.
Sen. Gary Peters, a Michigan Democrat, accused the Trump administration of escalating conflicts. He said the "heavy handed" tactics used by the department caused additional chaos. Peters also raised concerns that the "singular focus on protecting federal property is distracting the department from addressing the threat posed by domestic terrorism."
"The decisions this administration has made in recent months has put DHS personnel at unnecessary risk and because you chose to escalate conflicts, you not only risked our officers' safety, you risked the safety of American civilians," he said.
Peters said he hoped to hear testimony from Portland officials to get their side of the story.
DHS has also faced criticism for recent actions taken by the department's Office of Intelligence and Analysis related to the protests. A week ago, The Washington Post reported that DHS' intelligence office had sent Open Source Intelligence Reports to federal law enforcement agencies summarizing tweets sent by two journalists who had published leaked unclassified government documents while covering the unrest.
Wolf told the lawmakers he was informed of three instances of information being distributed as part of the DHS "Open Source Reporting Program" that also identified members of the press.
Wolf said he stopped the practice and removed the head of the office, Brian Murphy, after being informed of the incidents.
The department's watchdog -- the Office of the Inspector General -- is now managing the investigation into the incident, Wolf said.
Current and former DHS officials have criticized the department's role in Portland, arguing that the administration's actions are eroding the public's trust in DHS, a department formed in the wake of 9/11 to combat terrorism and enhance coordination among agencies.
Former secretary of Homeland Security under President George Bush, Michael Chertoff, recently said the department's actions are putting "public trust at risk" and that its response in Portland shows no respect for or coordination with local authorities, Peters said, questioning Wolf.
"On this point, he is dead wrong," Wolf said, arguing that he had tried to coordinate with local officials.