Portland Withdraws from Terrorism Task Force




O

n
Thursday, April 28 the City Council of Portland, Oregon passed an
ordinance that would make it the first jurisdiction in the country
to withdraw from an FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF). The
resolution, which passed by a four-to-one vote, ended months of
contention between the City Council and the FBI over the ability
of the city to oversee the Portland police officers who are assigned
full-time to the JTTF. 


There
are over 100 Joint Terrorism Task Forces—one in every major
metropolitan area—in which local law enforcement agencies assign
personnel to work with the FBI on counter-terrorism cases. Local
officers on the JTTF are deputized as federal agents and are supervised
by the FBI. In addition to the FBI and the Portland Police Bureau,
the PJTTF has members from suburban police departments, county sheriffs,
the Oregon State Police, and various federal agencies from the IRS
to the Coast Guard. Portland currently assigns two officers to the
JTTF, although that number has been as high as eight in the past. 


The
Portland police had participated in the PJTTF since its founding
in 1997. But the public was only made aware of its existence in
November 2000 when a police accountability activist, Dan Handleman,
noticed an odd item on the “consent agenda” of a sparsely
attended City Council meeting. Consent agenda items are typically
uncontroversial management issues that are passed without debate.
The item was the annual renewal of the the Portland Police Bureau’s
participation in the Joint Terrorism Task Force. Handleman asked
the Council what this was and why it was due to be passed without
debate or public testimony. The Council passed the renewal unanimously,
but placed public testimony about the issue on the agenda for the
following meeting. 


At
that next session the Council chambers were packed with outraged
citizens eager to testify against city participation in the JTTF.
Only a handful of people representing downtown business interests
spoke in favor of it. Activists told the Council how their organizations
had been infiltrated and watched by the police. Japanese Americans
compared the present national hysteria with the one that placed
them in internment camps in their youth. Other people told the Council
that government secrecy is a threat to democracy. A few recounted
the FBI’s history of harassing individuals and groups for their
political or religious affiliations. Each person had only three
minutes to speak, but the meeting went on for over five hours. In
the end the Council refused to rescind or amend their previous decision. 


September
11 didn’t appear to cool Portlanders’ opposition to the
JTTF, but the City Council hastened to renew the city’s participation.
As the Council was voting for the 2001 renewal, the frustrated citizens
who filled the gallery rose en masse and turned their backs on them.
Since then the arguments of the opponents of the PJTTF have been
progressively strengthened as the abuses they had warned of became
the day’s headlines. 


In
September 2002 a columnist for the

Portland Tribune

uncovered
an enormous cache of files that the Portland Police Bureau’s
Criminal Intelligence Division had kept on activists from the 1960s
to the 1980s. In 1981 a state law required the city to cease investigating
activist groups without reasonable suspicion that they were involved
in criminal activity and to destroy the files they had already accumulated
on such groups. Not only were the files not destroyed, but the city
continued maintaining them in defiance of the court. When finally
ordered to destroy them, a member of the police intelligence division
removed the files to his home where he continued to update them. 



As
the city was reading about the Portland Police Bureau’s recent
history of harassing political dissidents and racial minorities,
the FBI called a press conference where they announced with much
fanfare the arrest of a local Muslim cleric, Mohamed Abdirahman
Kariye. The FBI said that Kariye had tried to board a plane at Portland
International Airport with traces of TNT in his luggage. Subsequent
tests showed no explosive residue on the luggage in question. Eight
months later Kariye pled guilty to fraudulently gaining access to
the Oregon state health insurance system (so far, not defined as
terrorist activity). 


Then
there was the case of Brandon Mayfield. Shortly after the terrorist
bombing of a train in Spain in March 2003 that left 191 people dead,
the FBI arrested Mayfield for complicity in the bombing. Mayfield
is an attorney and convert to Islam who attended the same mosque
as Kariye. The FBI claimed that Mayfield’s fingerprints were
a “100 percent match” with those on a bag found in a van
close to the Madrid railway station where the attack took place.
At the same time the Spanish National Police were telling the FBI
that they disagreed. When Spanish police arrested an Algerian person
based on the evidence of the same fingerprint, the FBI’s case
fell apart and Mayfield was released without charge. (The Special
Agent in Charge of the FBI in Oregon, Robert Jordan, did the unheard-of
and issued an apology to Brandon Mayfield.) 


While
the FBI in Portland seemed to be going to great lengths to manufacture
terrorism cases against local Muslims, the Joint Terrorism Task
Forces of Denver and Fresno were found to be infiltrating and harassing
peace groups. 


Opponents
of the PJTTF understandably felt their position had been vindicated
by events. The pro-JTTF forces could only respond by chanting “9-1-1”
over and over again. But in 2002, after four hours of public testimony
overwhelmingly in opposition to renewal, the Council still voted
to approve. The Council added some sugar to the medicine in 2003
by voting to condemn parts of the USA PATRIOT Act at the same meeting
where they voted to renew city participation in the JTTF. 


Since
then, the makeup of the Council has changed. Mayor Vera Katz (who
had never seen a proposal for effective police accountability that
she liked) had long hinted that she would not run for re-election
in 2004. Perhaps the most conservative city commissioner, Jim Francesconi,
was waiting in the wings with the largest campaign fund the city
had ever seen. Since he was first elected to the Council, Francesconi
had courted the corporate sector—especially Portland’s
powerful Portland Business Alliance. By late 2003 he had amassed
a record $1.3 million in campaign funds, scaring off other well-known
politicians who might otherwise have made a run for the mayor’s
office. 


Portland
elections for mayor and commissioners are non-partisan. If no one
candidate claims a majority in the Spring ballot, then the top two
vote-getters run off on the November ballot. The city establishment
was shocked in Spring 2004 when the all-but-sworn-in Francesconi
came in a poor second to the former chief of police, Tom Potter. 


While
chief from 1990-1993 Potter pursued a less militaristic direction
in policing and showed an apparently genuine concern for civil liberties.
Before the Spring balloting he refused to accept campaign contributions
larger than $25 and appeared to be a real human being rather than
an opportunistic, focus-grouped construct of the business establishment. 


For
the general election Potter raised his campaign contribution limit
to $100 per person and rolled over a floundering Francesconi. Mayor
Katz’s former chief of staff, Sam Adams, was elected to fill
the Council seat that Francesconi had vacated. While campaigning,
the openly gay Adams worked hard to distance himself from Katz,
even threatening to rescind her endorsement of him. The change in
those two seats would make a profound difference in the JTTF controversy. 


Even
before he took office on New Year’s Day Mayor-elect Potter
expressed discontent about the city’s arrangements with the
FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. Potter seemed to take seriously
the democratic ideal of the subordination of the military and police
to civilian authority. To carry out their work with the feds, the
Portland cops on the JTTF are given “top secret” security
clearance. However, the people who sign their paychecks do not have
“top secret” clearance so they cannot know some of their
employees’ official activities. 


This
had long been a point of contention in the debates about the PJTTF
because Oregon state law has stronger protections of civil liberties
and restrictions on police behavior than federal law. Two 1980s-era
laws were central to the debate: one forbids law enforcement agencies
to “collect or maintain information about the political, religious
or social views, associations or activities” of any person
or group unless there are reasonable grounds to suspect them of
criminal activity and the information collected relates directly
to that alleged criminal activity. The other bars any state or local
law enforcement agency from investigating or arresting anyone solely
for violations of immigration law. 


In
1993 a local District court had found that the Portland Police were
gathering information and building files on the activities of a
local activist in violation of the first law. So concern was more
than abstract. As the director of the ACLU of Oregon, David Fidanque,
said at the 2002 renewal hearings, “If you take the Oregon
laws seriously, you should not allow Oregon police officers under
your watch to create files that you have no access to.” 





In
order to secure the 2003 JTTF renewal the FBI agreed to give the
mayor and police chief “secret” security clearance—a
lesser level than the “top secret” given the officers
in the task force. Even then they would only be given information
on a “need-to-know basis,” and the FBI would decide what
they needed to know. But the FBI refused to extend secret clearance
to the official whose job was to make sure that the actions of city
employees were within the law—the city attorney. Effectively,
officers’ activities would still be beyond the scrutiny of
local officials. Mayor Katz happily participated in the window dressing. 


After
much public speculation about what Potter would do with this situation,
on March 23 he and Commissioner Randy Leonard unveiled a resolution
that they intended to place before the Council to rectify the information
imbalance. Leonard is a former lieutenant in the Portland Fire Bureau
and a state senator who had voted for Portland’s participation
in the JTTF during his first year in office in 2003. Just before
the invasion of Iraq he had cast a very unpopular deciding vote
against a resolution condemning the war. Leonard later came to feel
he had been suckered by the Bush administration and this changed
his attitude toward working with the FBI. “I believed the president
when he argued that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
As it turned out my trust in what I was told was betrayed. I now
have adopted another guiding principal: Trust, but verify,”
he would later tell the Council. 


The
resolution required that all agreements that involve the Portland
Police Bureau in federally directed joint task forces would have
to provide the same clearance and access to information for the
chief of police, the mayor, and the city attorney as the police
assigned to the task force. It also required that the mayor be a
member of the committee that oversees the joint task force’s
work. 


The
mainstream media were uniformly in opposition to the resolution:
it wasn’t necessary; we should trust our police and FBI; Potter
and Leonard were usurping federal authority; etc. 


At
a meeting with the editorial board of Portland’s monopoly daily,
the

Oregonian

, Leonard brought up examples of past violations
of civil rights by the government.

Oregonian

publisher and
Portland Business Alliance director Fred Stickel replied that interning
Japanese-Americans during WWII “was the right thing to do back
then and would be the right thing to do today.”  


Right-wing
talk radio said similar things and worse. But community radio station
KBOO and local web loggers countered the disinformation campaign
with a steady stream of evidence, context, and reason. 


A
long-time aid to Commissioner Erick Sten, Marshall Runkel, said
of the time, “There was an enormous amount of political pressure—more
than on any issue I’ve seen before the city.” The downtown
law-and-order types wrote editorials and spoke out publicly against
the resolution. Members of Portland’s most prominent and wealthy
families didn’t testify at the hearings, but they made their
opposition to the resolution known to the City Council through less
public channels. Portland’s representatives at the U.S. Congress,
all members of the Democratic Party, were unanimously against it.
They feared that if the measure passed, the Administration and its
allies in Congress would try to punish the Portland area by withdrawing
federal funding. 


The
FBI, in the person of Special Agent Robert Jordan, took a tough
line. At an FBI news conference held the day the resolution was
made public, Jordan said the federal government “cannot and
will not” grant “top secret” clearances to local
elected officials, but that it may be possible to give “top
secret” clearance to the chief of police. This “compromise”
did not address fundamental concerns about civilian control of the
police. Jordan also admitted, “We do not supervise our investigations
to see if they comply with state law.” 


In
trying to talk Potter and the Council into being satisfied with
“secret” clearance, Jordan and U.S. Attorney Immergut
had both testified that the Portland police on the task force almost
never see “top secret” documents, but that they needed
“top secret” clearance to have unescorted access to the
FBI offices where the task force is based. 


Potter
and Leonard countered that they weren’t insisting that city
officials be given “top secret” clearance, only that they
have the same level of clearance as the people they supervise. They
would be satisfied with secret-level clearance for city officials
if the officers’ security clearance were also reduced to “secret.” 


A
compromise seemed possible where the Portland officers on the JTTF
would have their security clearance reduced to secret and continue
to work on the task force. The vote on the resolution was postponed
for three weeks while the U.S. Attorney’s office and the FBI
negotiated with the mayor’s office, who were now joined at
the table by the ACLU of Oregon. 


After
a month Mayor Potter, Special Agent Jordan, and a representative
of the U.S. Attorney’s office appeared at a joint press conference
where they announced that they had reached an impasse. Potter said
that he would reintroduce his resolution at the next Council meeting
and—because the FBI would not accept its conditions—if
it passed, the city would withdraw its police from the Joint Terrorism
Task Force. 


Oddly,
at the joint press conference, the tone of the feds’ talk had
changed dramatically. For months they had been saying, in the most
dire terms, that if Portland withdrew from the JTTF, everyone in
the city and the nation would be in great danger from terrorist
attacks. Jordan had warned, “We have people here in Oregon
that have trained in jihadist camps…taken oaths to kill Americans
and engage in jihad.” 


Now
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kent Robinson was saying, “While we
may have our differences, we have found a way to work together to
meet the requirements and needs of all parties involved.” Portland
Police Chief Derrick Foxworth, who had opposed the mayor’s
resolution, added, “The Portland Police Bureau enjoys a strong
relationship with the FBI and I don’t see that really changing.” 


According
to the ACLU of Oregon’s representative in the negotiations,
Andrea Meyer, “Jordan was willing to work around the ‘secret’
clearance to allow Portland police to continue to work with the
JTTF. But the core issue was that the FBI were unwilling to give
security clearance to the city attorney—regardless of the security
level agreed upon.” This wasn’t Jordan’s call, it
was the FBI’s Justice Department lawyers in Washington who
insisted the city attorney be denied. This would have left the mayor
without legal advice in determining whether the actions of Portland
police on the JTTF were within the law. 


The
resolution that passed the City Council on April 28 stipulated that
the Portland cops who are leaving the JTTF will continue to hold
their top secret clearance, but will only use those clearances during
an imminent terrorist threat. The Portland police will not independently
investigate any terrorism-related cases, but will pass on any relevant
information to the FBI. 


According
to Runkel, besides the issues of civilian and local control of police,
the vote against participation in the JTTF was also a broader vote
of opposition to the Bush administration’s terror war. While
voting for the resolution Commissioner Adams explicitly stated that
one reason he backed the mayor’s resolution was his objections
to the repressive measures of the USA PATRIOT Act. 


In
casting the final vote that pulled Portland from the FBI’s
Joint Terrorism Task Force, Mayor Potter said, “I don’t
think Portland is a strange city. I don’t think that we are
really that much different from most any other city in the United
States. I think that we are concerned about ensuring that we have
a proper balance between protecting people’s physical security,
the property that they own, and balancing that against their rights.” 


Now
that the first locale has withdrawn from a Joint Terrorism Task
Force, we will see if Potter is right and Portland is not alone.
As Runkel observes, “The long-term substantive benefit of doing
this is, when the sky doesn’t fall after we’ve done it,
then the propaganda machine has sprung a leak.” The power of
anti-terrorism as a rationale for an ever more repressive state
could be undermined. If Portland can remain safely outside the structure
of the JTTF, then other cities, towns, and states will likely follow.







 





Josef Schneider
is a writer who lives and works in Portland, Oregon.