At a Portland City Hall meeting behind closed doors this month, city staff asked Oregon’s top FBI agent and other federal law enforcement officials about immigration related arrests made by the Joint Terrorism Task Force, according to public records obtained by OPB.
The briefing took place Nov. 8. Attendees included Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, Police Chief Danielle Outlaw, FBI Special Agent in Charge Renn Cannon, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Ethan Knight, who coordinates national security cases for the U.S. attorney’s office in Oregon.
Two of Wheeler’s staffers — Nicole Grant and Berk Nelson — took notes, which OPB received through a public records request. Portions have been redacted.
The records reveal figures the FBI apparently told attendees about JTTF arrests.
Nelson’s typed notes state: “200 arrests from JTTF and 25 of them immigration related.”
Grant’s handwritten notes are similar.
“2017: 200 arrests in the [international] unit —> 25 were immigration related,” she wrote. “PPB officers do not work immigration matters — officers are fenced off.”
In Portland and elsewhere, JTTFs are divided into two teams: one that focuses on international terrorism and the other on domestic threats.
The questions around immigration could be important to the future of the JTTF in Portland, as the city weighs whether it wants a relationship with any federal agency that participates in immigration-related arrests. But it’s not clear whether any of the arrests mentioned in the staffer notes happened in Oregon.
When asked about the numbers, the FBI disputed how they were characterized in the Nov. 8 notes. But the agency declined to clarify how they may have been inaccurate.
“I can’t speak to the person who took the notes,” said an FBI agency official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The total number of arrests across the country of both [international terrorism] and [domestic terrorism] subjects likely would’ve been discussed at this meeting.”
The mayor’s office said Friday that the notes accurately reflect what the FBI said during the Nov. 8 briefing.
“We have confidence in the identical notes taken independently by two members of the mayor’s team,” said Michael Cox, the mayor’s chief of staff.
The FBI official told OPB that JTTFs around the country had made “more than 100 arrests” of international terrorism subjects last fiscal year. Beyond that, the official wouldn’t give more detail about the numbers documented by the mayor’s staffers.
In September 2017, FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Senate Homeland Security Committee there were approximately 176 arrests related to domestic terrorism threats.
“There are significant numbers of agents working very, very hard on that subject, so I can assure you it’s a top, top priority for us,” Wray testified.
The bureau official who spoke to OPB said immigration is not a priority for the agency unless there’s a criminal or national security threat.
But the FBI also did not state whether Oregon’s JTTF participated in any immigration-related arrests.
“We will use immigration violations as appropriate to disrupt subjects who pose a threat to our communities,” the FBI official said. “We take terrorism subjects off the streets using every tool we have.”
Immigration enforcement surrounding the JTTF is a critical issue for Portland Commissioner-elect Jo Ann Hardesty, who has said her first act upon taking office next year will be to vote to remove the city from the partnership. Hardesty said she believes the JTTF conflicts with Portland’s status as a sanctuary city for immigrants. Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Chloe Eudaly have also raised concerns about the city’s participation, meaning a majority of the Council may oppose the JTTF in January.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the FBI expanded JTTFs across the country to all 56 of its field offices.
Since 2015, when the city rejoined the JTTF, two Portland Police Bureau officers have been assigned to the partnership between the region’s local and federal law enforcement agencies. As part of the city rejoining, the FBI agreed to provide briefings every quarter or as needed to the mayor — who currently functions as the city’s police commissioner — and the police chief.
“Portland Police Bureau officers assigned to the JTTF do not participate in immigration related arrests or investigations per bureau policy,” Sgt. Pete Simpson, a spokesman for PPB, wrote in an email.
Former Portland FBI Special Agent in Charge Greg Bretzing led the effort to get the city to rejoin the JTTF in 2015. He said he doesn’t see how Portland’s status as a sanctuary city would impact its participation on a terrorism task force.
“A suspect’s immigration status in the United States — that’s not driving the investigation,” Bretzing said. “What would drive the investigation is the suspect’s involvement in terrorism activities or activities that could potentially be a threat to Portland or Oregon.”
Bretzing didn’t have any direct knowledge of the arrest numbers documented by the mayor’s staff, but said it’s misleading to call them immigration arrests.
“If it’s a terrorism investigation or a JTTF investigation, then someone involved in that investigation is being arrested and charged with an immigration violation,” he said. “But that is very, very likely not the purpose of the investigation and how it was initiated.”
Bretzing said by charging terrorism cases as something else — for example money laundering, immigration or mortgage fraud — it protects investigative methods.
“That’s why you don’t take those tools out of the arsenal,” he said. “You address the threat, eradicate the threat if you can, and you put the person away. You go for the most effective way to address the threat.”
FBI Director Wray made a similar argument during the 2017 hearing before the Senate committee.
“A lot of times the best charge — even in the international terrorism arena where we have a statute — may not be the terrorism charge,” Wray testified. “There may be reasons why it’s simpler, easier, quicker, less resource intensive. You can still get a long sentence with some of the other offenses.”
The FBI’s Portland field office has scheduled a media briefing Tuesday to discuss the local JTTF. That comes as the fate of the task force remains uncertain under what may be a more skeptical Portland City Council in 2019.