Portland Gives Joint Terrorism Task Force the Boot

BY SUSAN CHENELLE

City Is The First In U.S. To Withdraw

On April 28 the Portland, Ore. City Council voted 4-1 to withdraw its police officers from the Joint Terrorism Task Force with the FBI, making Portland the first U.S. city to do so. The decision brought joy to most of those in the city council gallery, marking a victory in a long battle to protect the civil liberties of all Portland citizens.

The resolution calls for the two officers currently assigned to the JTTF to be withdrawn within 90 days and reassigned to the Portland Police Bureau’s Criminal Intelligence Unit. It also lays out protocols for responding to emergency situations. For five years, a coalition of groups, including the ACLU of Oregon and Copwatch of Portland, repeatedly raised concerns about the Portland Police Bureau’s participation in the JTTF. As Dan Handelman of Copwatch and Peace and Justice Works told The Indypendent, they began organizing among those likely to be targeted—labor, faith, civil rights, and peace and justice groups—and met with them to strategize on how to testify before the city council.

Oregon state law prohibits state and local police from collecting and maintaining files on the political, religious and social activities of individuals or organizations unless there is evidence of criminal activity. The city’s open government laws also require that overtime for the officers assigned to the JTTF couldn’t be approved without going through the city council. The coalition asked that the officers be pulled from the JTTF and the Memorandum of Understanding between the city and the FBI be publicly reviewed.

The turning point came with the election of Mayor Tom Potter, a former Portland police chief. After weeks of negotiations with the FBI, he decided to support the resolution, as the bureau refused to give him the same top-secret clearance the two officers serving on the task force had. With insufficient oversight, Potter understood it would be impossible to ensure that the Portland officers adhered to Oregon law.

“When we look at our history, we see examples that when we blindly give people power, that sometimes the power is misused,” Potter said during the hearing.

Portland citizens had good reason to be wary of the JTTF’s actions. Last year the FBI wrongly detained Brandon Mayfield, a Muslim resident of a Portland suburb, for 14 days in connection with the Madrid bombings, and later apologized.

Handelman himself has had his own run-ins with the JTTF. During 1998 criminal hearings for protesters arrested during a demonstration, a “Criminal Intelligence Report” identified him as the leader of the Peace and Justice Works Iraq Affinity Group, and as a “non-criminal” who had “been very active in calling for, arranging, and sponsoring these demonstrations concerning U.S. involvement with Iraq.” Because none of Handelman’s activities were criminal, the report was in violation of state law and a previous judgment against the city for spying on another Copwatch member.

The danger of these reports, according to Handelman, is that “who knows how far they are disseminated.” He urged activists, particularly those participating in Critical Mass demonstrations, to submit requests to find out if the FBI has files on them.

In December, the ACLU of Oregon submitted a Freedom of Information Act request on behalf of 17 organizations and individuals, including Handelman. As Andrea Meyer, Legislative Director of the ACLU of Oregon told The Indypendent, the FBI says it has files on nine of the 17. The ACLU is still waiting to receive the files.

WHAT IS A JTTF?

A Joint Terrorism Task Force is an on-going arrangement through which participating federal, state and local law enforcement agencies share information and resources related to terrorism. The number of JTTFs has nearly doubled since September 11, 2001, at least 66 JTTFs nationwide, consisting of more than 2,300 personnel. In 2002, the FBI established a National Joint Terrorism Task Force involving nearly 30 law enforcement agencies. JTTFs have been widely criticized for targeting environmental, animal-rights and anti-war activists around the country. One New York Times report revealed that a classified FBI memo advised local police agencies “to report any suspicious activity at protests.” The ACLU has filed FOIA requests in 10 states to try to find out if JTTFs are being used to spy on people.

DOES NEW YORK HAVE A JTTF?

Yes. The concept of sharing resources among law enforcement agencies was first implemented in New York City in 1979 with the first JTTF formed in 1980. More than 130 NYPD officers currently serve on New York’s JTTF. It came under serious scrutiny during the Sept. 11 hearings for failing to prevent the attacks on the World Trade Center despite numerous warnings. The Handschu Consent Decree had provided some protections for New Yorkers against the monitoring of legitimate political activity similar to those in Oregon, until it was rescinded in 2003. Many observers fear the JTTFs are updated versions of police “Red Squads” and the FBI’S Cointelpro, used to suppress domestic dissent in recent history. —S.C.

Originally published in MAY 11-25, 2005 THE INDYPENDENT

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Author: schenelle

High school teacher of English and journalism. Co-author of Using Informational Text to Teach literature series.

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