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The Story Behind Bill Barr’s Unmarked Federal Agents

The motley assortment of police currently occupying Washington, D.C., is a window into the vast, complicated, obscure world of federal law enforcement.

By Garrett M. Graff | 5 June 2020

POLITICO — Few sights from the nation’s protests in recent days have seemed more dystopian than the appearance of rows of heavily-armed riot police around Washington in drab military-style uniforms with no insignia, identifying emblems or name badges. Many of the apparently federal agents have refused to identify which agency they work for. “Tell us who you are, identify yourselves!” protesters demanded, as they stared down the helmeted, sunglass-wearing mostly white men outside the White House. Eagle-eyed protesters have identified some of them as belonging to Bureau of Prisons’ riot police units from Texas, but others remain a mystery.

The images of such military-style men in America’s capital are disconcerting, in part, because absent identifying signs of actual authority the rows of federal officers appear all-but indistinguishable from the open-carrying, white militia members cosplaying as survivalists who have gathered in other recent protests against pandemic stay-at-home orders. Some protesters have compared the anonymous armed officers to Russia’s “Little Green Men,” the soldiers-dressed-up-as-civilians who invaded and occupied eastern Ukraine. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent a letter to President Donald Trump Thursday demanding that federal officers identify themselves and their agency.

To understand the police forces ringing Trump and the White House it helps to understand the dense and not-entirely-sensical thicket of agencies that make up the nation’s civilian federal law enforcement. With little public attention, notice and amid historically lax oversight, those ranks have surged since 9/11 — growing by roughly 2,500 officers annually every year since 2000. To put it another way: Every year since the 2001 terrorist attacks, the federal government has added to its policing ranks a force larger than the entire Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. […]

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