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Hales wants to be 'all in or all out'; ACLU says out

Less than two weeks before President Obama convenes an international conference on fighting terrorism, the City Council is once again scheduled to discuss its involvement with the local FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force.

Mayor Charlie Hales has tentatively scheduled a work session on Portland’s participation in the JTTF for Feb. 5. The White House has announced plans for world leaders to gather Feb. 18 in Washington, D.C., to better coordinate their efforts against homegrown terrorists and other extremists. The “Summit on Countering Violent Extremism” was called in the wake of the attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebo in Paris, where 17 people died.

Portland’s current involvement in the JTTF is limited. No police are permanently assigned to the JTTF, but they are allowed to participate in its investigations on an “as-needed basis,” provided they are investigating suspected criminal activity. The Portland police chief must also present an annual report to the council on activities in the previous year.

Mayor Hales is not pleased with that level of participation, according to spokesman Dana Haynes. Hales also thinks the annual reports have not provided enough information for the council to understand what the investigations involving the police have entailed.

“The mayor thinks the city should either be all in or all out. He does not have preference at this point, but wants the council to discuss it and make a decision, one way or another,” Haynes says.

Portland FBI Special Agent in Charge Gregory Bretzing says his agency prefers the city to be fully involved in the task force.

“We think Portland is safer if the police are fully involved. They have a unique perspective of the city and have knowledge of people we night not be aware of,” Bretzing says.

The ACLU of Oregon believes the city should fully withdraw from the JTTF, however, according to Legislative Director Becky Straus.

“The FBI has a well-documented history of abusing the rights of law-abiding citizens,” Straus says.

According to Straus, although the ACLU supported the current arrangement when it was approved in 2011, the organization has been disappointed by the lack of information in the annual reports.

“We think Portland should be a national model for protecting rights and transparency, and there is not enough information in the reports for us to tell if the arrangement is working,” Straus says.

Homegrown extremists

Hales first requested the work session in December, weeks before the Paris attacks and upcoming international terrorism summit. Haynes says those events could affect the council’s deliberations, because they are so emotional and high profile. At the very least, they have focused attention on the role of local law enforcement agencies in fighting homegrown extremists.

The Paris attacks and others in Canada and Australia in recent months involved “lone wolfs” who are not easily tracked by national authorities.

“Recent events show the nature of terrorism is changing and we need to respond to that,” Bretzing says.

According to Bretzing, even if Portland completely withdraws from the JTTF, the FBI will brief Hales and new Police Chief Larry O’Dea on any imminent threat to the city.

Portland and the FBI

The FBI Portland JTTF is one of 104 task forces based in cities involving federal, state and local law enforcement officials in the county. The first was established in New York in 1980. More than half — 71 — have been created since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.

Portland’s involvement in the local JTTF always has been controversial. When the council voted to authorize Portland police to participate in 2000, civil libertarians complained about the FBI’s civil rights violations, among other things. Hales, who was a city commissioner at the time, was the lone “no” vote. Haynes says Hales always has opposed assigning police to duties, such as border patrol, outside the scope of the Portland Police Bureau.

Objections surfaced each time the council reauthorized the participation until 2005, when then-Mayor Tom Potter complained he could not properly oversee the officers’ involved in it and the council voted to withdraw.

The council came up with its current arrangement in 2011 after 19-year-old Mohamed Osman Mohamud was arrested by the FBI on charges of trying to detonate a bomb in Pioneer Courthouse Square several months earlier. The deal was brokered by Dwight Holton, who was the Oregon U.S. Attorney. He argued Portlanders would be safer if the police were once again participating in the JTTF. The council only agreed to limited involvement, however, and required the annual reports that have proven controversial. Former Police Chief Mike Reese explained the information in them was limited to not compromise ongoing investigations.

Controversy has accompanied all of the JTTF’s known investigations. Mohamud’s lawyers unsuccessful argued he was entrapped in the bomb plot by overzealous undercover agents who took advantage of his young age. Six years before that, the FBI apologized for suspecting Portland lawyer Brandon Mayfield, a Muslim, of participating in a terrorist bombing in Spain. Some people even criticized the FBI for pursuing the Portland Seven, a group of local Muslims whose members tried to travel to Afghanistan to fight coalition forces in 2002. Although some of them talked about attacking local targets when they returned home, local Muslims and others accused the FBI of setting them up.

More recently, Reaz Qadir Khan, a Portland Bureau of Environmental Services employee, was arrested in March 2013 on charges of aiding a terrorist attack on a Pakistani government compound four years ago that killed 30 and injured 300 people.

The White House says the Feb. 18 terrorism summit will “highlight domestic and international efforts to prevent violent extremists and their supporters from radicalizing, recruiting, or inspiring individuals or groups in the United States and abroad to commit acts of violence.”

The announcement specifically mentioned the role local governments can play in such efforts. Officials from such cities as Boston, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis-St.Paul are scheduled to discuss strategies they have used.

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