Portland's terrorism task force vote splits anti-hate coalition
Some of the activists who supported the Portland City Council's resolution last week to condemn white nationalists are decidedly less enthusiastic as the council mulls whether to withdraw from the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force this week.
The task force in Portland has at times played a prominent role combating white supremacist hate groups, and on paper still does — even as hate crimes in Portland and elsewhere are on the rise. Just last month, according to the Daily Astorian, an activist handed out fliers in Astoria entitled "The KKK Wants you!!!"
So while some hate crime watchers are not actively opposing Portland's pullout from the task force, they're not supporting it either. And many are openly skeptical.
"I have great respect for both sides" in the FBI task force debate, said Randy Blazak of the Oregon Coalition Against Hate Crime, who has not taken a formal position on the issue. "But my main position is that threat (of white extremism) is real and the Northwest has long been a center for that thinking. ... There is a value in keeping the channels of communication open (between agencies) about what the real threat is."
"It's kind of ironic," said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism in California, "that at a time when it's the white nationalists who are demonstrably the leading, most prominent threat, that we're now having conflicts which could affect the effective monitoring of potentially violent white nationalist extremists."
Indeed, a scan of the website of the most prominent group to track hate crimes, the Southern Poverty Law Center, shows that local JTTFs have sometimes been viewed by racist extremists as a primary nemesis. For instance, a co-founder of the Vinlanders Social Club — a Phoenix-based white nationalist group — bragged that his JTTF file is "a mile long," according to the center's website.
But the FBI and its terrorism task forces also have been accused of violating civil rights and spreading fear among local Muslims, sparking longtime concerns by the ACLU of Oregon, The Oregon chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and Portland Copwatch. And Jo Ann Hardesty, the newest member of the City Council, has made it clear she wants the city to pull out.
Since so little of the group's work is public, it's hard to get a grasp on how much the JTTF focuses on white supremacists — especially under the Trump administration, said Heidi Beirich, who serves as director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's research arm that tracks hate groups.
"There has been very little information provided by federal officials on how seriously they take white supremacy," she said. "It's hard to know."
Loren "Renn" Cannon, special agent in charge for the FBI in Oregon, has been advocating publicly for the city to stay in the task force, saying local participation is key to efforts to share information and react appropriately. He said the local task force assessed about 300 "threats" last year to determine if they merited further investigation.
"We work very actively against white supremacists' violent actions. It is a priority for the FBI," he said. "It's something that we take seriously and devoted resources to."
The council will discuss the issue at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 12 and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 13. See article, Page A5.
Task force looked at hate
Beefed up as part of a national initiative in the wake of 9-11, the task force in Oregon has made headlines mainly for its role in prosecuting local Muslims like the "Portland Seven," which sought to travel to Afghanistan to fight American troops.
But it has tracked hate and violent white extremists as well.
In the late 1990s, the task force targeted the white racist group Volksfront, though the group is thought to have imploded of its own volition.
Years later, at a time when members of the white nationalist prison gang the European Kindred were allegedly taking out "contracts" to kill members of law enforcement, the task force opened a racketeering investigation into the group, which some observers said helped rein in their activities. In the end, however, European Kindred's leader, David Patrick Kennedy, was brought down by local cops investigating home invasion robberies.
More recently, the task force investigated the Bundy organization that took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
And in 2017 the task force monitored Jason Schaefer of Rock Creek, who was allegedly making bombs and issuing violent threats, though his motive was not thought to be white supremacist in nature.
More recently, a Clark County sheriff's memo surfaced in local media reports saying the FBI was depicting the Proud Boys, conservative group whose members have been involved in several violent incidents, as an "extremist" group. But Cannon of the FBI then denied that the entire group had been categorized in that way.
Despite its occasional surfacing in high-profile cases, the terrorism task force is an enigma to even many in local law enforcement, said one retired law enforcement official.
"The organization probably does great things," the ex-official said sarcastically. "We never figured out what it was. We would feed the FBI information and we just would not get anything back."
"Is it wise that Portland's pulling out? I don't think so. Is it the end of the world? I don't think so."
The danger is that individuals don't need to run in extremist circles to adopt their ideology and to act out in violence, as did Timothy McVeigh, the 1995 Oklahoma City bomber. It's in those cases, where an extremist's online activity is often key, that the FBI's resources are irreplaceable, some say.
To track the emerging trend of "loner" violence, the FBI's resources are key, Levin, of the California-based hate crime center said. But he said federal agents also need to pay more attention to the problem.
"I'll make it simple: When the next Timothy McVeigh does something, do you want a splintered and disjointed law enforcement approach?" he said. "The problem is, we have to have these federal agencies paying more attention to the most prominent problem out there, which is white nationalists."