In 1963, the U.S. Agency for International Development released a training film for police called First Line of Defense. Designed to teach cops from Third World countries how to recognize the signs of an impending Communist revolution—and to repress this political subversion with alacrity—it depicts an ersatz Communist gang that arrives on the scene by covering the city with graffiti. The film makes it clear that without a targeted defensive intervention by police, this limited misrule could be the first fitful step in a full-blown guerrilla insurgency. Otherwise a sober and didactic affair, the film contained one joke. The gang’s symbol, daubed on city walls, was “O/PS,” which also happened to be the name of the outfit behind the film, the Office of Public Safety, the CIA-linked foreign police training arm of the U.S. government at the height of the Cold War.
In mid-June, when the Trump administration rolled out its executive order in support of law enforcement, the White House referred to police as the “first line of defense here at home.” Ten days later, another executive order proclaimed that “American Monuments, Memorials, and Statues” must be protected from dangerous “Anarchists and left-wing extremists.” Although the orders read more like executive branch shit-posts, these laid the foundation for the Trump administration to use federal law enforcement officers to wage new domestic war against civilians.
This refrain, where violence comes from the nozzle of an aerosol can, might seem like another joke, but the consequences are dangerous. Heavily armed federal officers protecting a courthouse from vandalism have been firing projectiles at protesters, causing grievous injuries. These special officers, mum when asked to identify themselves but employed by Customs and Border Protection, wear camouflage fatigues, helmets, and tactical gear. They carry a range of weapons, including chemical irritants and sound cannons. Most chillingly, they have been driving unmarked minivans like a gang of particularly aggro soccer moms. The officers have been recorded forcing seemingly random detainees into a van, which immediately speeds away. Mark Pettibone, a protester who was snatched off the street in this fashion but released, reported that these masked officers never identified themselves.
President Trump, in turn, is feeding this show of force into his reelection rhetoric, campaigning as the last line of defense against violent anarchists. Portland has served as his laboratory for a range of radical law enforcement tactics, with the promise that other cities will soon play host to the same demonstration of state-sponsored force. The cities need an approach like the one the United States took in Afghanistan, Trump muses, because their mayors, like the militants, are too “left-wing.”
As many commentators have noted, these moves come right out of the playbook of foreign strongmen. But the history of the Office of Public Safety, created to support counterinsurgency around the globe during the Cold War, demonstrates that Trump’s ardor for authoritarian force has long-standing, homegrown roots. That history also provides some sobering lessons: Every time the type of operations depicted in the Office of Public Safety’s film went awry during the Cold War, and popular insurgencies flared, severe and indiscriminate state violence ensued. The result was a sordid itinerary of low-intensity warfare, death squads, forced disappearances, and massacres. The question before the country today is just how much of this sequence is now unfolding at home.
Counterinsurgency is supposed to be preventive. Once a full-blown insurgency breaks out, it can be difficult to extinguish. Occasionally, it even leads to regime change—just look at Lyndon Johnson, toppled by an insurgency in Vietnam. The security tactics required to control a roiling political movement intent on taking power are necessarily escalatory. The logic is simple: Insurgents succeed when they convince regular people to support them. Therefore, preventing them from gaining adherents among the population is paramount.
In the process, regular people end up becoming the state’s targets. If you support the insurgents, you’re a target. If you seem inclined to support the insurgents, you’re a target. The only way to avoid becoming a target is to offer fulsome support for the ruling regime and its forces. But, as classical counterinsurgency theory admits, supporting the regime can make you a target of the insurgents. Ergo, insurgents’ terror is met with governments’ counterterror.
The counterterror is always worse. After departing Guatemala in 1968, a State Department official named Viron P. Vaky, horrified by what occurred under his watch, sent his colleagues a pained memorandum titled “Guatemala and Counter-Terror.” How, he wondered, had it come to this? Was it because liberals (like himself) were too credulous of the revolutionary threat posed by the far left that they gave license to the far right and unleashed the police? Whatever the cause, the consequences were clear to Vaky. Guatemala’s counterterror was “corrosive,” “indiscriminate,” and “brutal.”
Counterterror frequently took the form of forced disappearance in cities. This appalling technique allowed no closure for the family of the disappeared, who were left wondering if their loved one would someday return. With no body, there was no evidence of a murder but also no possibility of a funeral or mourning ritual. Guatemalan trade unionists and students were among the first targets, because they were easy to find and thought to be persuadable by the hidden Communist fifth column.
In some cases, counterterror came at the hands of state forces. One government innovation in Guatemala was tossing suspected Communists out of helicopters flying over the sea. Far-right militants in Portland have been spotted wearing shirts that laud this very tactic. But increasingly, they are dressing just like the DHS officers, give or take a Hawaiian shirt.
Sometimes counterterror came at the hands of loosely organized paramilitaries, especially in the countryside. One 1972 analysis by U.S. scientists drily observed of a 2,000-man peasant paramilitary force the Guatemalan government created, “Although untrained, undisciplined, and indiscriminate in their operations, the amateur deputies were credited with much of the success of the campaign.” This study concluded, however, that “heavy-handed techniques” by other “undercover agents” were “too clumsy to be very effective, and resulted in generating opposition to the government from normally nonpolitical elements of the population.”
Often, it was simply unclear who was behind the counterterror because the shadowy operatives never identified themselves. Were death squads composed of off-duty police or soldiers? Were they employees of elites and landowners? Were they people you knew from the neighborhood? Across Latin America during the Cold War, particularly in the military dictatorships like Argentina, fears that your neighbor might be a member of a vigilante death squad were more plausible than the propaganda claims that your neighbor could be a Communist subversive. In Argentina, death squads drove Ford Falcons, the country’s most popular car, which meant that one of these sedans rolling down your street could mean you’d never see your family ever again, or it could mean nothing at all. To this day, the sight of a vintage Falcon can cause an older Argentine heart to skip a beat.
These histories, and their painful and unfading memories, press on the present because Trump has reinvigorated the ideologies of counterrevolution throughout the hemisphere. And forced disappearances continue.
Today, the U.S. still provides similar kinds of security aid all around the world to those it provided through the Office of Public Safety five decades ago. In fact, the Border Patrol Tactical Unit that’s been operating with such impunity in Portland would normally be involved in the training of border agents in other countries. But these histories press on the present because, under Trump, U.S. foreign policy has been shorn of any pretense of a commitment to liberal democracy. Now these reinvigorated ideologies are at work on the streets of the U.S.—even as protesters in the streets evidence some of our greatest popular democratic possibilities yet.
Within a few days of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police, it was clear that this round of uprisings was different. Police oscillated wildly between wanton attacks on peaceful demonstrators and speedy retreats, seemingly designed to allow as much property destruction and looting as protesters were willing to attempt. The attacks maximized the anger among protesters, and the subsequent tactical departures allowed them to take it out on the cityscape itself. In Minneapolis, a police precinct burned down, and in other cities, police vehicles were targets. In New York City, protesters liberated goods from high-end stores while nary an officer was in sight—because they were massed around peaceful protesters several blocks away.
But federal forces, with their nearly unlimited resources, acted differently. Their shows of force were unrelenting. They matched specialized police battalions on the ground with aerial surveillance and helicopter maneuvers intended to intimidate, if not actually injure, protesters. These operations incited protesters, rather than de-escalating the demonstrations.
For a few days in early June, it seemed that a combination of vicious local police behavior around the country and federal tactics focused on Washington were bringing the country to the brink of a counterrevolution. The lesson was clear to sober observers: It was the violence of police that was intensifying the protests. As I wrote at the time, counterinsurgency was breeding insurgency.
Then exhaustion began to set in. Protesters switched tactics, mayors pleaded for calm, and, facing dissension in the ranks, military leadership walked back threats and issued unprecedented rebukes to the president, aided by support from retired generals. But the people’s anger about racism has not dissipated, particularly as the economy continues to crater for all except the superrich, the pandemic rages, and police keep killing civilians.
In some of the places where protests have been a persistent feature, like Portland, Trump’s Department of Homeland Security has been deployed. Unlike the National Guard, whose ill-prepared members often seemed uncomfortable operating at home against protests, the DHS houses Trumpism’s true believers. Not only is its operational activity, like deportation, the crude essence of Trumpism, Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement have been the eager foot soldiers of the Trump agenda.
Portland has been a focal point of protests throughout the Trump presidency. Journalist Arun Gupta called it “Riotlandia.” Clashes between neo-Nazis and anti-fascists have become routine, and the protests after George Floyd’s killing have marked a continuation of these mobilizations. Local police have been brutal; that brutality has only strengthened the resolve of the protesters.
Within the city, the federal courthouse is ground zero for many protests, allowing DHS to claim jurisdiction. But the operations exceed protecting against vandalism. In a statement to reporters about Portland, an unnamed senior DHS official insisted that the feds “don’t go around arresting people for no reason,” because “this isn’t communist China.” But the fear of undemocratic, illiberal, and alien ideologies compels the disavowed use of undemocratic and illiberal measures: This is the reflexive mechanism of counterterror strategy.
Naturally, the purpose of DHS agencies like ICE is to arrest people for no reason. Federal agents, working with local cops, have disappeared thousands of migrants through mass deportation, sometimes leaving them to face the gang violence they originally fled. DHS breaks up families and even funnels children into the foster system to be adopted. Matching this federal form of ethnic cleansing is everyday urban policing, where for decades plainclothes units have been snatching people off the street in anti-gang operations, frequently leading to violent reprisals because it is unclear whether the state or “opps” made the snatch. The echoes of Argentina’s “dirty war” are clear.
The current public attention on Portland is not yet forcing DHS to back off, and Trump’s continually declining poll numbers could inspire him to turn up the heat further by sending federal forces to additional cities. The detention of Mark Pettibone, which has received a lot of coverage, is an indicator. He was grabbed but released, without the apparent creation of a record. But not creating records and releasing people could simply be a precedent for not creating records and not releasing people. It’s a classic example of a forced disappearance. It can happen here. As The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman reported, five years ago—long before Trump arrived on the scene—it has happened here. Trumpism is just the logical conclusion of something we’ve been loath to admit for decades: The illiberalism of counterterror is the American creed.