PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) -- The FBI and Oregon law enforcement agencies urged the Portland City Council on Tuesday to reconsider entering police officers into a counterterrorism program established to root out potential homegrown threats.
Portland, which withdrew from the Joint Terrorism Task Force several years ago, remains the only major city not participating fully in the program. Law enforcement representatives argued two months after a teen was charged in an alleged plot to bomb a downtown tree-lighting ceremony that city officers have a vital role to play in the national task force.
This is not just about protecting Portland, said Dwight Holton, U.S. Attorney for Oregon. The 9/11 bombers didn't case lower Manhattan but instead were in smaller cities where local law enforcement could have tipped off the federal government.
A civil liberties group told city council members that rejoining would unnecessarily engage Portland officers in investigations that could break Oregon law, and the five-member council is scheduled to vote Feb. 24 on the issue.
The Joint Terrorism Task Force is essentially a trade for Portland: In exchange for access to worldwide terrorism intelligence, the city sacrifices most civilian oversight of the two officers it would have full-time in the task force.
The city removed its police officers from the Joint Terrorism Task Force under then-Mayor Tom Potter because the FBI refused to give Potter the top-secret security clearance he said he needed for full oversight of the officers assigned to the task force.
The city's relationship with the FBI was also frayed because of the FBI's surveillance of Brandon Mayfield, a Beaverton lawyer mistakenly linked to the 2004 Madrid train bombings because of an erroneous fingerprint match. Mayfield settled with the government for $2 million.
Portland's first post-9/11 experience with terrorism came late last year, when Mohamed Osman Mohamud, 19, was arrested and accused of trying to detonate what he thought was a bomb at a Nov. 26 Christmas tree-lighting ceremony. The men he thought were his coconspirators were actually FBI agents, and there was never an explosive device, authorities said.
Portland police chief Mike Rees, who still gets briefed three times each year, was informed of the plot, but wasn't permitted to inform Mayor Sam Adams, who only learned of the attempt three hours after Mohamud's arrest.
It's unclear whether Adams would have been informed if the city were part of the task force.
Three days after Mohamud's arrest, City Commissioner Dan Saltzman issued a press release and called for a city council vote to rejoin the task force.
Participating in the Joint Terrorism Task Force would amount to condoning surveillance and investigations of groups or individuals based solely on religious or political affiliations, said American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon Legislative Director Andrea Meyer. Meyer said the FBI can do so through threat assessments, a category of investigation that doesn't require a factual basis to begin surveillance in public places and through public records.
Meyer also said it's doubtful that a Portland police officer would directly challenge the FBI if he or she was asked to do something that would violate Oregon law.
Partly at issue is the 1981 Oregon law that says no law enforcement agencies are permitted to run surveillance or investigations into people or groups unless it directly relates to criminal activities and there are reasonable grounds to suspect the person being investigated is involved in criminal conduct.
The ACLU of Oregon argues that an FBI threat assessment would violate that statute.
Holton said rejoining the task force allows the city to access and contribute to worldwide terrorism intelligence. Holton and FBI General Counsel Valerie Caproni said concerns about civil-liberties violations are overblown, and said much has changed since the 2008 presidential election.
The lasting damage of the Bush Administration is they oversold what the terror threat is, and I'm still dealing with it, Holton said. Eric Holder, the U.S. Attorney General, understands what it is and what it isn't.
Fidanque said the city's current participation allows all records created by its officers in the Joint Terrorism Task Force to be public, city records. A shift to full participation would put those records off-limits.
Other cities are looking at Portland, Fidanque said. Finding potential terrorists is like looking for a needle in a haystack. They're making the haystacks exponentially larger through (surveillance).
Have they identified potential terrorists? Yes. How? I'd love for them to tell us.