Terror task force awaits police
Delays, security clearance issues stall city's participation
No Portland police officers are serving on the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force, even though the City Council authorized their participation more than three months ago.
The delay is happening despite renewed interest in far-right domestic terrorists as the result of the July 22 attacks in Norway by an anti-immigration extremist. Although the task force is holding regular, confidential briefings with area law enforcement officials on international, national and local extremist activities, the Portland police are not yet included.
In fact, Portland has a long history of far-right extremist activity. One reminder was the death last week of Ken Mieske, the racist skinhead who beat Ethiopian immigrant Mulugeta Seraw to death with a baseball bat in November 1988. Mieske died in prison while serving a life sentence for the murder. The killing was only the most shocking crime committed by local skinhead gangs in the 1980s.
The Norway attacks have also focused attention on what the FBI calls 'lone offenders' - individuals who commit terrorist acts without assistance. Anders Behring Breivik is believed to have acted alone when he bombed government buildings in Oslo and attacked a youth camp, killing 77 people.
Mike Caputo, the FBI's supervisory special agent for the Portland JTTF, says terrorists like Breivik are the hardest to spot and stop.
'We have long tried to be proactive with lone offenders, but they are extremely difficult to detect,' says Caputo.
The city's involvement with the JTTF has been delayed for several reasons. The police bureau only adopted on July 22 the standard operating procedures to govern its participation. The procedures are necessary to ensure compliance with conditions the council imposed on the bureau when it approved on April 28 participation in the JTTF. Among other things, the council wants to be sure no officer violates state law against investigating anyone solely because of political beliefs or immigration status.
In addition, no officers have received the federal security clearances necessary to serve on the task force. Neither has Police Chief Mike Reese or Mayor Sam Adams, who is also police commissioner.
The clearances are necessary to receive confidential information shared among the members of the JTTF. It is not known when the officers, chief and mayor will receive their clearances.
Fortunately, local far-right activity in appears to be at a low point, according to Randy Blazak, a Portland State University professors who monitors extremists and runs the nonprofit Coalition Against Hate Crimes.
That does not mean law enforcement officials can relax, however.
'When things are quiet, it can mean extremists are lying low and planning for the future,' says Blazak.
For a city with such a liberal reputation, Portland has a long history of right-wing fringe political activity, including a large and active Ku Klux Klan chapter in the 1920s. More recently, Portland gained a reputation as a hotbed of racist skinhead activity in the mid-1980s with the emergence of two gangs, the Preservation of the White Aryan Race (POWAR) and Eastside White Pride.
Mieske belonged to Eastside White Pride, which consisted of more than a dozen young men and women who shaved their heads, wore heavy Doc Marten boots and denounced minorities. After a night of drinking, Mieske and two other members - Kyle Brewster and Steven Strasser - ran across Seraw and another Ethiopian immigrant on a dark Southeast Portland street. A fight broke out, and Mieske beat Seraw to death.
After a week of investigation, police arrested the three skinheads. Mieske pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Brewster and Strasser pleaded guilty to manslaughter and assault and received lesser sentences.
A civil lawsuit filed by Seraw's family revealed that a skinhead associated with California white supremacist leader Tom Metzger had moved to Portland and encouraged the Eastside White Pride members to attack minorities in the weeks leading up to the murder. A jury held Metzger and his son John liable for the death and ordered them pay the family $12.5 million.
Local skinhead activity fell off dramatically after the trial. But the 1990s saw an increase in militia-related activity that mirrored the rest of the county. A group called the Oregon Militia held regular meetings and target practice sessions at area gun ranges.
With fears of massive computer failures tied to the year 2000 growing, a number of large survivalist gatherings were held in Portland and Tacoma, Wash. Called Preparedness Expos, they attracted such noted far-right figures as Militia of Montana founder John Trochmann and fringe presidential candidate Bo Gritz.
Overt far-right activity dropped off after the Y2K scare proved unfounded, both in Portland and across the country. According to Blazak, a number of white supremacist groups organized events and operated websites in Portland through the early 2000s, but they are longer very active.
Radical talk protected
A lack of apparent activity does not mean all is quiet below the surface, however. A recent analysis of the 1,500-page manifesto written by Breivik shows that the Norwegian extremist planned his attacks for years. According to Janne Kristiansen, director of the Norwegian Police Security System, the manifesto posted online just before the attacks shows Breivik was preparing to do such things 10 to 12 years ago.
Law enforcement agencies in Europe are on high alert for copycat attacks. Last week, Finnish police arrested an 18-year-old man who ordered 22 pounds of fertilizer from Poland, allegedly to make bombs. German police recently raided homes of 18 people linked with an anti-immigration group, seizing guns, ammunition, drugs and computers.
Although no such arrests have been reported in this country, Caputo says the FBI has long been aware that individual terrorists can be inspired by extremist groups that are not involved in criminal activity. They include so-called sovereign citizen groups that argue federal laws do not apply to them.
Although Caputo says such claims are free speech protected by the First Amendment, people who act on them can break the law. In 2007, a U.S. District Court judge in Portland convicted 52-year-old Steven Dale Kelton of 20 counts of filing a false tax document, with the IRS alleging that various public officials, lawyers and bank and utility employees had engaged in dubious financial transactions in amounts up to $500 million. The tactic - advocated by some 'sovereign citizen' groups - was designed to initiate IRS audits of those named by Kelton.
Caputo says interest in the sovereign citizen movement seems to be growing in Oregon, in part because the recession is pushing more people to the financial brink.
'This is of concern to us, although we cannot start an investigation unless there is evidence someone is breaking the law,' Caputo says.