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February 16th, 2011 MARK ZUSMAN | City Hall
 

Don’t Do It

Why Portland shouldn’t rejoin the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

news1_3715ILLUSTRATION: Jonathan Hill
In 2005, led by then-Mayor Tom Potter, Portland became the only U.S. city to pull out of the Joint Terrorism Task Force over civil-liberties concerns.

The City Council should not reverse that decision when it considers the issue Feb. 24. In fact, both for practical and symbolic reasons, we think Portland should remain outside the federal task force.

Those clamoring to rejoin the JTTF, notably City Commissioner Dan Saltzman and the editorial board of The Oregonian, argue that the alleged plot by a 19-year-old Muslim man to bomb Pioneer Courthouse Square the day after Thanksgiving is reason enough. But this plot was stopped without Portland’s full participation in the JTTF, which is a coalition of federal law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

The current agreement, forged in 2005, says Portland cops can cooperate with the JTTF on specific investigations but will not join the JTTF in an ongoing capacity. In the case of alleged bomber Mohamed Osman Mohamud, Portland police were brought into the investigation in September 2010, about three months before the JTTF arrested the young man.


Potter’s objections in 2005 were that he would be forced to relinquish the city’s supervision of Portland officers if he allowed them to fully join the JTTF. His specific concern then—and now—was that officers reporting to him might violate citizens’ rights without his knowledge. Potter is no stranger to law enforcement. He’s a former police chief.

“I needed to have oversight of resources under my control,” he said recently. “And I didn’t.”

Potter sought a compromise. He asked to receive top-secret clearance so he could review his officers’ work. The feds said no. (Although it is rare for a mayor to have top-secret clearance, the FBI confirmed that at least one mayor in a city with a JTTF does have such clearance.)

Potter’s concern was not hypothetical.

The expansion of law enforcement authority and its ability to operate in secret has become one of the troubling postscripts of 9/11. Ironically, those who criticized the Bush administration for curtailing civil liberties are willing to give President Obama a pass, even though there is little daylight between the two administrations on this matter. Witness the Obama administration’s attempt to extend provisions of the Patriot Act, extensions a majority in the U.S. House shot down last week.

We’ll admit to being emotionally engaged in the JTTF question. Even now, seven years later, we are still raw from witnessing the treatment of Brandon Mayfield, the Oregon lawyer who happened to be a Muslim. Mayfield’s phones were tapped and his house searched. He ultimately was arrested—falsely—for the bombing of a train in Madrid, because of a botched fingerprint identification. The feds later apologized and gave Mayfield a couple of million dollars. But that is small comfort to the rest of us concerned about the thin line between an aggressive security apparatus and a police state.

The Mayfield case is hardly unique. In September 2010, the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Justice found that the FBI was willing to toss away civil liberties in its fever to find terrorists. In repeated breaches of what JTTF opponents claim are the feds’ “new” marching orders, the FBI investigated members of advocacy groups (peaceniks, animal-rights activists, enviros) without any evidence of a crime.

In one typical example, at a Pittsburgh antiwar rally, the inspector general said the FBI investigation was “extremely troubling on its face. It described no legitimate purpose for the FBI to attend the event…. It supplied no evidence or even suspicion that any criminal or terrorist element was associated with…or likely to be present at the event.”


Former FBI Special Agent Mike German, who now advises the ACLU, adds weight to our concerns. For more than a decade, German infiltrated domestic terror groups on behalf of the FBI. He says Portland would be crazy to join the JTTF. German points out that the attorney general’s rules for what is required before federal law enforcement can open an assessment—the lowest level of an investigation, yet one that allows an agent to do physical surveillance and secure some phone records—have become too lax.

“When I was an agent, the standard was [higher],” he says. “You had to have reasonable suspicion that a crime was [in the planning]. Now you can open an assessment on someone with nothing.” And the Obama administration has done nothing to change that.

In 2007, German wrote a book called Thinking Like a Terrorist: Insights of a Former FBI Undercover Agent. The premise is simple—that one of the goals of sophisticated terror groups is “to get government to step over the line and violate civil liberties and create real discontent.”

“The notion,” German says, “that trading off civil liberties is necessary for more security is simply a false paradigm.”

Although we oppose rejoining the JTTF, there are paths that could change our view. Certainly the man leading the campaign to rejoin, U.S. Attorney Dwight Holton, promotes transparency that gives us more comfort than we’ve felt with any Oregon U.S. attorney in 30 years. And were the feds willing to grant the mayor top-secret clearance, we might support such a move. But until then, we believe Portland should stay on the sidelines.

We’re not naive enough to believe Portland’s decision, on its own, will alter how the feds fight the “war on terror.” But protests begin with one voice. In the war on terrorism, one city in this country needs to stand up for civil rights. 

That city should be Portland. 

 
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