FILE - In this April 1, 2020, file photo, Attorney General William Barr speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington. U.S. officials are vowing to "maximize federal law enforcement presence" in the nation's capital after days of violent demonstrations. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)
Barr defends law enforcement's force in removal of peaceful protesters in DC
03:04 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

More than 1,250 former Justice Department employees have asked the agency’s internal watchdog to investigate Attorney General William Barr for his role in the forcible clearing of peaceful protesters outside the White House earlier this month ahead of a staged photo opportunity by the President.

In a letter released Wednesday, the former officials, who served in career and politically appointed positions under Democratic and Republican leadership, said they were “disturbed” by the episode and that Barr may have trampled protesters’ constitutional rights when he ordered the move. They asked Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz to review the attorney general’s involvement.

“If the Attorney General or any other DOJ employee has directly participated in actions that have deprived Americans of their constitutional rights or that physically injured Americans lawfully exercising their rights, that would be misconduct of the utmost seriousness, the details of which must be shared with the American people,” the former officials wrote.

As of 5 p.m. Wednesday, 1,264 former Justice Department employees had signed their names to the letter.

Spokeswomen for Barr and Horowitz declined to comment to CNN on the letter.

The letter, organized by Protect Democracy, a nonprofit that has battled the Trump administration, is similar to other statements put out by the group of former officials earlier this year, including calls for Barr to resign over his handling of the Roger Stone and Michael Flynn prosecutions.

The clash between federal law enforcement and protesters at Lafayette Square, a federally owned green space north of the White House, has been widely condemned and Barr has already drawn scrutiny and criticism from Democratic lawmakers and civil rights groups – although the attorney general has sought to distance himself from the official order to clear the demonstration and Trump administration accounts of his influence in the violence have waffled. A probe by the independent Justice Department inspector general would likely allow investigators to review documents and interview witnesses to create a clear accounting of the fraught scene.

The White House press secretary has said it was Barr who ordered law enforcement to push back the crowd of demonstrators last week, but Barr has attempted to find nuance in the decision-making, telling The Associated Press on Friday that he did not issue the “tactical commands” to force the protesters’ move despite having an “attitude” of “get it done.”

Barr, who was directed by Trump to lead federal law enforcement’s response to the protests in the nation’s capital, has said he approved a plan on the morning of the protest to enlarge a protective perimeter around the White House by one block, after a period of violent rioting the day before. But because of a problem mustering enough authorities to carry out the operation, it was delayed until later in the day, when protesters had already amassed just north of the White House.

In a news conference last week and in a string of interviews that followed, Barr claimed that the crowd was “becoming increasingly unruly” ahead of the clash, and that water bottles and rocks were thrown at him. A CNN camera recording the scene from a nearby rooftop shows a peaceful crowd holding up signs and chanting from behind a barrier as federal authorities encircle them and broadcast dispersal orders. Two objects, including a water bottle, can be seen flying toward police.

Barr has also maintained that the move against the protesters was not done to make way for President Donald Trump, who walked soon after the demonstrators had been cleared to a nearby church, where he posed in front of television cameras with a Bible in his hand.

“There was no correlation between our tactical plan of moving the perimeter out by one block and the President’s going over to the church,” Barr said at the news conference last week.

Democratic lawmakers, including the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, have demanded answers on the episode from the Justice Department and called for a special prosecutor to investigate. The American Civil Liberties Union and a Washington chapter of Black Lives Matter have sued the attorney general over the violence, which included the use of tear gas and rubber bullets.

In the letter, the former officials also challenged Barr’s deployment of federal law enforcement authorities throughout the city as protests against police brutality and racial injustice swelled.

“We have profound doubts that the personnel deployed from these agencies are adequately trained in policing mass protests or protecting the constitutional rights of individuals who are not subject to arrest or have not been convicted of a crime,” the former officials said.