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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.
September 2002 a columnist for the
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.
Z Magazine Archive
CUBAN 5 - From May 30 to June 5, supporters of the Cuban 5 will gather in Washington DC to raise awareness about the case and to demand a humanitarian solution that will allow the return of these men to their homeland.
Contact: email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike- A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides, music, exhibitors, and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; mailbikesnotbombs.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in NYC.
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VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
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ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16 in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops.
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CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5-day Seminar at the University of Havana, plus visits to a co-op and educational and medical institutions.
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NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
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MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
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GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process in the U.S.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from across the continent to learn skills and build one big union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13, the 11th Annual Peacestock will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers, and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
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LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations, and panel discussions.
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ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference.
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