Later this month, City Council will determine whether Portland remains the only major U.S. city that refuses to assign police officers to the feds’ Joint Terrorism Task Force.
In 2005, then-Mayor Tom Potter pulled Portland from the JTTF because of concerns about the lack of oversight the city would have.
Specifically, he wanted more assurances that cops wouldn’t be violating state and local laws restricting surveillance and investigation of groups based on their political and religious affiliations.
Two weeks ago, we asked Dwight Holton, the U.S. attorney for Oregon, to give us his best arguments why Portland should rejoin the JTTF when the five-person City Council votes Feb. 24 on that question. This week, we interview David Fidanque, executive director of Oregon’s American Civil Liberties Union chapter since 1993, about why Portland should not rejoin.
Fidanque sharply disagrees with Holton’s views on rejoining the JTTF. And he argues that our civil liberties are even less secure under the Obama administration than they were under George W. Bush.
Willamette Week: What’s Dwight Holton’s best argument?
David Fidanque: His best and his worst argument is, “Just trust us.” I wish we could trust our government to do what’s right. But throughout the history of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, they’ve shown us repeatedly we shouldn’t unless there is adequate oversight. And there isn’t adequate oversight currently.
Is there any JTTF agreement the city could strike that would give you enough comfort to support rejoining?
What we found out in 2005 is that the Justice Department wouldn’t allow the relevant people in city government to have the access to provide that oversight and guidance for officers (specifically, the city attorney). The city attorney is key because the city attorney is the one who’s charged with reviewing the files of the criminal intelligence unit to make sure they’re in compliance with the law. The city attorney is also key because that’s who city employees call when they want to know whether something is legal.… That was nixed by the Justice Department, which would not give clearance to the city attorney. The mayor said that meant there was no way to know if we’re following the law.
The acting U.S. attorney sat in our office a couple of weeks ago and said the mayor would have at least a degree of civilian oversight.
They would not have access to sources and methods. That’s the difference between secret and top secret clearance. The powers of the FBI have greatly expanded since 9/11. The strictures on them have essentially been done away with in terms of the attorney general’s guidelines. The FBI has resisted oversight by Congress every step of the way.
How does the city’s non-participation in the JTTF in any way ameliorate the situation you just described? In other words, is it more likely the JTTF won’t violate our civil rights if Portland doesn’t join the JTTF?
No. But what it does do is prevent Oregon resources from being corrupted in the way federal resources have been corrupted. Oregon law since 1981 has prohibited any state or local police agency from collecting or maintaining any information about political or religious or social activities of individuals or organizations unless they’re directly related to criminal activities.
Holton said the feds don’t gather information on people based on their religion or politics.
They don’t do it solely because of their political, religious and social activities. But they do as long as they have some other shred of a possibility of “I think there may be someone connected with this person who might be involved with international terrorism activities. Therefore I want to check out this person and collect information.” Did you hear what I said? There “may be,” there “might be”—that’s not a reasonable suspicion. It’s nowhere near probable cause…. What they are doing now is snooping on lawful activity in the hopes they will happen on somebody who is planning a terrorist act. A smarter way to go about it would be to follow the evidence that they have and comes to them. If they spent as much time developing relationships not based on fear and intimidation in the Muslim community, people would be more likely to go to the FBI. If you think having Portland officers be in the JTTF is going to provide a window into the FBI, you’re very naive.
Holton said those abuses no longer occur.
That’s bullshit. Those tactics have been authorized by Congress. They’ve been authorized by the attorney general.
If you were locked in a room with Holton and told to come up with an agreement, what would it look like?
I don’t think it’s an agreement that Holton has the authority to do. It would include the same kinds of restrictions on the creation of FBI files in Oregon that state and local police have. It would include regular review of those files.
Any sense of how this council will vote?
It’s clear Commissioner [Dan] Saltzman [supports rejoining JTTF] and Commissioner [Randy] Leonard [opposed] have not changed their view. I think the other three are being very circumspect. I don’t know what the vote is going to be. I would be surprised if the mayor changes his position from five years ago, but I know he was saying we have a different administration [in Obama] now and that maybe we don’t need to be worried. Not only has it not gotten better, it’s gotten worse.
Fidanque grew animated at several points in the interview about the prospect of Portland rejoining the JTTF, including these two excerpted clips below. In the first clip, Fidanque talks about the need to change federal policy because civilians like the city attorney can't otherwise blow the whistle on the FBI for abuses.
In the second clip, Fidanque sharply disagreed with a statement Interim U.S. Attorney Holton made to WW in an earlier interview about whether JTTF officers gather information based on targets' political or religious affiliations.
FACT: City Council will hold a public work session Tuesday, Feb. 15, at 9:30 am to discuss rejoining the Joint Terrorism Task Force. The council is scheduled to vote Feb. 24 on the issue.