Maryland Reps. on Capitol Hill Want Answers From Defense Dept., FBI

Defense Secretary Mark Esper (left) and General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have come under fire for their comportment during protests in the wake of George Floyd's death. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Amid days of unrest across the nation following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police last week, Maryland representatives on Capitol Hill are pressing for accountability from the FBI and Department of Defense.

U.S. Rep. Anthony G. Brown (D-Md.) and Congresswoman Lori Trahan (D-Mass.) penned a letter to U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper Wednesday relaying their concerns regarding language and actions Esper has employed in response to nationwide protests.

“As Secretary, you have authority, direction and control over the Department of Defense,” they wrote. “Your rhetoric and command set the standard for all who serve our country.”

The letter is co-signed by 14 other House members — many of whom sit on the Armed Services Committee, where Brown is vice chairman.

During a Monday conference call with governors, Esper reportedly called American communities a “battlespace” to be “dominate[d].”

The letter from Brown states that military doctrine declares “that ‘dominate activities’ are those that ‘focus on breaking the enemy’s will’ and ‘attacking weaknesses at the leading edge of the enemy’s defensive perimeter.’”

“In response to this, let us be clear: United States citizens are not the enemy and our military should not plan or execute attacks against them,” the representatives wrote.

In recent days, governors across the country have begun deploying the National Guard in response to protests that, in some cases, have become violent. The decision to deploy has also come after pressure was exerted in phone calls with President Trump to increase law enforcement activity on the ground.

Trump has also threatened to deploy the active-duty military on American soil through the Insurrection Act of 1807 in response to the civil unrest.

Esper came out against deploying the military at a news conference Wednesday, saying using troops as domestic law enforcement should be “a matter of last resort.” 

In their letter, the congressional representatives called those remarks a “step in the right direction.”

The letter reports that over 28,000 National Guard troops have been posted across 28 states and Washington, D.C. — “ a greater force than the combined number of troops we currently have deployed in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.”

This includes members of Maryland’s National Guard, who have been posted around the monuments at D.C.’s National Mall.

At a news conference Wednesday, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) explained that he consented to send the Guard after a conversation with Esper, in an effort to prevent the activation of the military in the District. Hogan added that D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) approved the mission.

Maryland Matters reached out to Bowser’s office Wednesday to confirm but has yet to receive a response. She did address the question at a news conference Thursday afternoon.

“I have not talked to Gov. Hogan,” she said. “I can’t approve his mission.”

Bowser said that D.C. is a member of a compact that allows her to make requests for National Guard personnel to any state. She said Thursday that she hasn’t made such a request.

“I have not done that for any state,” Bowser said.

The representatives’ letter acknowledges that military police have been posted in the District, noting that military helicopters have been used to upset protests and that  Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been seen patrolling D.C. in fatigues. 

“The actions that you and our armed forces take in the coming days will ultimately be viewed through the lens of history,” they wrote. “As the civilian leader of our armed forces, we call on you to heed these words and set a standard for our servicemen and women that history will recognize as a positive force in the resolution of this unrest.”

Brown is not the only Maryland lawmaker pushing Esper to respond to recent events.

Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) were joined by five others in calling for answers Thursday concerning the deployment of 1,600 active-duty troops near D.C. this week, and as tear gas and rubber bullets were utilized to clear peaceful demonstrators at Lafayette Park near the White House.

Earlier this week, the country watched in horror as U.S. military personnel and federal law enforcement were ordered to shut down peaceful protests in our nation’s capital,” they wrote. “The President’s use of military force against American citizens peacefully protesting is plainly unconstitutional.”

The Associated Press reported Wednesday afternoon that Esper had given the green light to remove active-duty troops from the area surrounding the District, but changed his mind ahead of another night of protests. 

The AP reported this afternoon that hundreds of these troops have since been sent back to Fort Bragg, N.C.

The senators are demanding an explanation of both Esper’s initial decision and its reversal, “including what specific facts on the ground changed and whether you were ordered by the White House to reverse course,” to be delivered to them by Monday. 

“To add insult to injury, the American people will have to foot the bill for these violations of their First Amendment rights,” the letter reads. 

The senators are also requesting a report of the staging costs for U.S. military personnel and equipment at bases surrounding the National Capital Region, as well as an estimate of the daily cost of their deployment. 

This is also to be delivered to Congress by June 8 and does not include costs incurred by the National Guard.

Silence from the FBI

Van Hollen wrote a separate letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray Thursday looking for answers surrounding the National-Use-of-Force data collection

The letter says that Van Hollen requested information about the database last May after a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science, and, in spite of several follow-ups to his and other senators’ questions, has yet to receive a response.

He called their silence “incomprehensible.” Van Hollen says that this data is key to addressing racial bias in law enforcement. 

Last year, the FBI launched the National-Use-of-Force data collection in response to a series of high-profile instances of police violence. Aggregated data is set to be released this summer.

The senator said that before the launch of the database, accounts of these incidents were collected mostly by independent researchers and news organizations. 

Van Hollen wants to know if there are metrics to ensure that state and municipal police departments are submitting data to the collection and how Congress can encourage participation. 

He explained that he asks these questions with the understanding that participation in the database is voluntary. According to his letter, less than 50% of all U.S. law enforcement agencies reported to the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting program in 2019.

I want to ensure that the necessary resources are in place to expand the depth and breadth of data collected,” he said.

According to Van Hollen’s letter, black people are 2 1/2 times more likely to be killed by police than white people, despite making up just 13% of the U.S. population. He said that in Minnesota, where Floyd was killed in police custody, that likelihood of black death rises to four times the rate of that for whites. Minnesota’s population is only 5% black.

Van Hollen pointed out that this is not the only delay in department reporting, noting that in 2018 the FBI delayed responses to questions for the record for the agency’s budget hearing by nearly nine months. He said that the FBI and Department of Justice’s “consistent disregard for Congressional oversight” resulted in $5 million in withheld funds for fiscal year 2020. 

“These unacceptable delays cause distrust between the FBI and Congress,” he wrote.

Van Hollen said that as Congress works to reduce these incidents of police violence, they need transparency from the FBI.

“We cannot protect our citizens or demand accountability and justice if we do not know who is being killed,” he wrote. “I hope your agency is committed to working alongside Congress to improve the structural and systemic dysfunction that plagues our country.”

[email protected]

Hannah Gaskill
Hannah Gaskill received her master’s of journalism degree in December 2019 from the University of Maryland. She previously worked on the print layout design team at The Diamondback, reported on criminal justice in Maryland for Capital News Service and served as a production assistant for The Confluence — the daily news magazine on 90.5 WESA, Pittsburgh’s NPR member station. Gaskill has had bylines in The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Post and The Chicago Tribune, among other publications.Before pursuing journalism, she received her bachelor’s of fine art degree from Carnegie Mellon University in 2016. She grew up in Ocean City.