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Portland Gives Joint Terrorism Task Force the Boot

Susan Chenelle May 11, 2005

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The resolution calls for the two officers currently assigned to the JTTF to be withdrawn within 90 days and reassigned to the Portland Police Bureau’s Criminal Intelligence Unit.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.