Council votes to withdraw from terrorism task force
Portland's City Council on Wednesday voted to pull out of the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force, reflecting a new balance of power since the November election.
By a 3-2 vote, the council agreed Feb. 13 with concerns about civil rights expressed by more than 50 groups that had signed onto a letter expressing support of the move. Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Nick Fish opposed the withdrawal, citing safety concerns.
The move by Portland means that two Portland police officers will no longer participate in the task force. The city's move follows the lead of San Francisco, which pulled out of its JTTF in 2017.
Renn Cannon, special agent in charge of the FBI in Oregon, said in a statement after the council vote that the FBI would continue to partner with "other members of the JTTF as well as informally with cities and counties across the state to share information and address threats as appropriate."
"I want the people of Oregon to know that the men and women of the FBI do their work with the utmost respect for and adherence to our shared Constitutional protections that allow us to speak, gather and worship freely no matter who we are or where we come from," Cannon said.
Out in 2005, back in 2015
Portland's task force was formed by the FBI in 2000 and included the Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the U.S. Postal Service, the U.S. Marshals Service and several state and local law enforcement agencies. It is similar to more than 100 other joint task forces around the country, which deal mainly with terrorist threats and regional crime issues.
Portland Police Bureau had been a part of the task force since the beginning. The city withdrew from the task force in 2005 and rejoined in 2015. In 2017, activists gathered on the steps of City Hall to formally launch their call for the city to again withdraw from the task force.
Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty won office last November while making no secret of her belief that the city should withdraw from the task force. She has argued that the federal arrest and subsequent conviction of Mohammed Mohammud over his attempt to trigger a supposed car bomb at the 2010 Pioneer Courthouse Square Christmas Tree lighting ceremony amounted to entrapment by FBI agents.
"This is not a new issue for communities," Hardesty said as she cast her vote. She cited federal officials' "disregard for state law" when it comes to Oregon's sanctuary law that prohibits law enforcement from cooperating with immigration enforcement. During her campaign, she said, "Everywhere I went people were concerned that their data was being collected and used in ways that were against Oregon law."
Dozens of people rallied outside Portland's City Hall before the Wednesday afternoon hearing, calling on the council to leave the federal task force.
Hardesty led the rally ahead of a council vote on her plan to withdraw from the task force.
Hardesty said the task force's work was counter to Portland's sanctuary city status for immigrants. Opponents of the task force say it frequently targets immigrants, people of color and Muslims.
Commissioner Amanda Fritz also voted in favor of withdrawal, saying the FBI had not kept its promises to be transparent and regularly report to the city that were made when Portland rejoined the task force. "Those reports were ludicrous" in how little information they had, she said.
She noted that FBI directives allow surveillance that is prohibited by Oregon law and said she's unconvinced that the agency sufficiently monitors domestic threats such as white supremacist extremists. Fritz said the city had "already tried" rejoining the task force in the hopes that it would be more transparent.
"It did not work," she added. "Trust cannot be earned by saying, 'You can trust me.' "
Commissioner Chloe Eudaly had been considered the likely swing vote on the task force resolutions. She said the testimony at council eased some of her concerns about pulling out of the task force.
"I do not trust the system that JTTF functions within. I do not trust the administration that oversees it…. Do you feel safer today than you did five years ago? I don't."
'It's a mistake'
Commissioner Nick Fish voted against the withdrawal, calling the debate "unfortunately rushed." He stressed his past votes on white nationalism and his concerns about the Trump administration.
Fish said that Portland remains threatened by terrorism, and said, "My confidential briefings from federal law enforcement have reinforced this sobering reality."
Fish had floated a counterproposal that would have called for explicit safeguards for civil liberties and kept the city in the terrorism task force, which he said would set a "national standard" for such task forces. And he had prepared further amendments to strengthen his counter-proposal.
Wheeler called the vote unsurprising and said he respected the majority's vote. "I personally do not believe that the case to withdraw from the JTTF has been adequately made…. I still believe it's a mistake."
Early in Wednesday's hearing, Wheeler argued that the task force would be most transparent if the city of Portland is engaged in it, saying that to withdraw would be asking the city to trust the FBI to share all relevant information with the city — a notion seemingly at odds with the distrust felt by those calling for withdrawal.
Portland Police Bureau Assistant Chief Jami Resch agreed with Wheeler's assessment, saying, "to us it becomes less transparent."
But Kimberly McCullough of the ACLU of Oregon disagreed with Wheeler's argument.
"The idea that our officers working for the JTTF is going to somehow transform a massively long history of rights violations by the FBI and by various JTTFs around the country, it's dubious to us," she said.
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