Portland city commissioners grilled the state’s top federal law enforcement officials Tuesday, one day before a likely vote on whether the city will withdraw from the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force.
The session was largely a repeat of past debates about whether the group’s investigative practices violate Oregonian’s civil liberties, albeit with fresh twists — including sharp questions from several City Council members about how the FBI and Department of Justice investigate white supremacist violence and left-wing protesters.
Portland has an on-again, off-again relationship with the task force, joining it in the late 1990s, withdrawing in the early years of the post-9/11 “war on terror,” and then rejoining in 2015.
Fulfilling a campaign promise, Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty has introduced a resolution to once again pull city police from the task force, while Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Nick Fish are pushing to remain involved.
With Hardesty and Commissioner Amanda Fritz on record in favor of withdrawing and Wheeler and Fish in favor of staying in, Commissioner Chloe Eudaly likely will cast the deciding vote.
She said the FBI’s history of unjustified surveillance of left-wing political activists is weighing heavily in her thinking.
“How do we justify the risk of civil and human rights violations by our continued involvement in JTTF?” Eudaly asked. “That is the core question for me in this conversation.”
Billy Williams, the U.S. attorney for Oregon, replied with an apology.
“I think there has to be an acknowledgement of the scenarios and situations that you’ve outlined … here in Oregon as well as nationally, and recognize mistakes have occurred,” he said.
“Thank you,” Eudaly interjected.
“Groups advocating for review and policy changes, congressional oversight, all of those things are so critical for us being better at what we do. And at the same time balancing that with being able to make assessment of threats,” Williams continued.
Hardesty was the sharpest critic of the counterterrorism task force.
In one exchange, she pressed the FBI’s special agent in charge, Renn Cannon, to provide more information about the people the group investigated in Oregon last year.
“Can you give me a demographic breakdown of the individuals who were identified as a potential threat?” Hardesty asked.
“Three hundred threat assessments were opened and worked. What I can say is those roughly mirror the demographics of the state,” Cannon answered.
“So 3 percent would have been African-American, 10 percent would have been Latino, and the rest would have been white people who were investigated?” Hardesty pressed.
“I don’t have a specific … I’d have to go back and try to find those,” Cannon said.
“Well then you shouldn’t try to answer it if you don’t have the answer,” Hardesty fired back.
Hardesty also asked Williams to comment on how the Portland Police Bureau has handled street violence and protests in Portland.
“We’ve seen the Proud Boys and other white supremacist groups marching throughout the street. We’ve seen Portland Police officers attack counterprotesters,” she said. “Is that a model of law enforcement living up to what you believe their role should be?”
Williams answered cautiously: “It’s a baited question,” he said. “I think you’re trying to offer an answer in a question. You can come up with all kinds of examples of great police work.”
Asked why the FBI hasn’t been more outspoken about the threat posed by white supremacists, Cannon said the FBI has noted a rise in white supremacist hate crime and has been involved in prosecuting cases of white supremacist violence in Kansas City, upstate New York and Los Angeles.
Two Portland police officers have been assigned to work with the terrorism task force on a part-time basis since the city rejoined the partnership in 2015. Historically, much of the debate over Portland’s involvement in the JTTF hinges on two questions: How much oversight do Portland’s civilian leaders have over the work of those officers? And will working on the JTTF lead those officers to violate Oregon’s expansive state laws protecting civil liberties?
Those statutes include a ban on local law enforcement from collecting information on a person’s political or religious views, and the so-called “sanctuary law” that prohibits the use of state and local resources to enforce federal immigration laws if a person’s only crime is their immigration status.
Cannon and Williams said that Portland’s officers are walled off completely from any cases that involve immigration status, and said the FBI’s does not target individuals for investigation based on race, religion, national origin or political beliefs.
“Doing so is both illegal and, in my view, immoral,” Williams said.
The JTTF officers report to the Police Bureau’s assistant chief for investigations, who reports directly to Police Chief Danielle Outlaw. Outlaw is in the process of obtaining the proper security clearance to be briefed more fully on the work of the JTTF.
Mayor Wheeler signed a non-disclosure agreement to receive limited briefings on the officers’ work, but Cannon confirmed that Wheeler isn’t in line to get a security clearance.
The two Portland police officers assigned to the JTTF testified by phone Tuesday, using only their first names, Matt and Brian, to protect their undercover work. Both said they’d never violated Oregon law in their work with the JTTF.
Those assertions were met with skepticism from some members of council.
“You said Portland police officers are walled off from immigration issues. Just how are they walled off from immigration issues?” Fritz asked.
“They are not assigned anything, they do not work on anything where the individual who has the potential criminal activity has an immigration status,” responded Jessica Anderson, the supervisor for the Portland FBI’s international terrorism unit.
Fritz, unsatisfied, noted that Portland Police officers assigned to the JTTF could have access to federal databases that could include information prohibited under Oregon’s laws.
A panel of outside critics of the JTTF were also invited to give presentations to the council, including an attorney from the Council on American-Islamic Relations and a former FBI agent who now works with the Brennan Center for Justice.
They pointed to press reports of a number of cases in which the FBI has subjected Muslim Americans to unwanted and intrusive surveillance or attempted to recruit them as informants, including the example of a Google engineer in San Francisco questioned after visiting family in Pakistan.
Kayse Jama, a community organizer and Somali-American, urged the council to withdraw from the JTTF, noting it was his third time in a decade he’d appeared before them to make the same argument.
“I’m tired of this city paying lip service to the idea of being a sanctuary city,” Jama said. “My community is very fearful, just of getting a knock on the door.”