Head of Portland branch finds oversight of terror task force a sticking point
The director of Portland's FBI office is trying to preserve a relationship with the city's Police Bureau that he considers 'absolutely critical' to his team's mission of investigating local terrorist threats.
Two city officers are assigned full time to the Portland FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force. Since its creation in 1997, the police department's participation in the task force has been renewed by the City Council each year.
This year, however, the council has postponed voting on whether to renew its participation. Three of five City Council members have either announced their opposition or are publicly raising questions about the arrangement.
Special Agent Robert Jordan, who leads a force of more than 100 FBI agents in Oregon and also supervises the Portland task force, told the Portland Tribune that in his view, the council's opposition to the renewal 'just doesn't make sense.'
'If the single biggest threat to the region is terrorism, it doesn't make sense to have the largest police presence in Oregon be absent from the terrorism task force,' he said.
For example, he said, 'if we get a lead that two undocumented aliens just jumped ship in the Columbia and we go and talk to the owner and find out they're from a country that's of interest to us, we're going to start looking for those folks. And it's absolutely key to be able to plug into the Portland Police Bureau, to put out alerts and to plug into their information systems.'
A big sticking point is who on the council would get security clearance to review what cases the city's officers are working on.
Jordan said that he is not willing to grant security clearance to all city commissioners who want civilian oversight of the task force.
He said the only council member who would be invited to apply for security clearance would be the mayor or whoever ends up serving as police commissioner. Jordan's office has given Mayor Tom Potter an application for 'secret' security clearance similar to what was granted to former Mayor Vera Katz.
But opponents point out that the mayor would not receive the same level of 'top secret' clearance as the Portland officers who actually work with the task force.
Jordan said Portland stands alone in its demands for civilian oversight among the 100 cities that have terrorism task forces or an equivalent force. 'When I meet with my counterparts from other cities, not one of them is having this issue with their city council,' he said.
Get out the vote
City Commissioner Randy Leonard said he can't support an arrangement where the police officers involved in the task force get a higher security clearance than the chief of police or the mayor.
'These Portland police officers work for us,' Leonard said. 'They need to be held accountable to their superiors.'
While Leonard said he has made up his mind to vote no, Commissioner Erik Sten said he is torn.
'Of all the votes I've taken on the council, this is probably the one I've been least satisfied with,' Sten said. 'I've voted for it twice, and both times I've been unsure it was the right vote.'
Council newcomer Sam Adams has said that he would vote for extending the city's role in the task force if he were offered security clearance to help oversee the task force's work.
Jordan said he didn't think that would be a good idea. 'If we gave clearance to everyone who wanted it, we'd end up with nine people supervising two detectives,' he said.
Jordan, a former New Jersey cop and Philadelphia prosecutor, has run Portland's FBI office for a year and a half. He said the local threat of terrorism is real.
'There are people in Oregon right now who have trained in jihadist camps overseas,' he said. 'And in some of those camps they preached the murdering of Americans, and they took vows to murder Americans.'
Portland's two biggest recent cases involving alleged terrorist threats brought differing results. In the Portland Seven case, six local Muslims pleaded guilty to conspiring to fight U.S. forces in Afghanistan (the seventh is thought to have died in Afghanistan). In the Brandon Mayfield case, a local Muslim lawyer was held without charges for two weeks and wrongly linked to a terrorist bombing in Spain on the basis of poor forensics.
Jordan apologized to Mayfield, but he emphasized that his agents had nothing to do with the misidentified fingerprint that implicated the attorney.
'I'm very proud of how we conducted ourselves with the Mayfield case,' he said. 'We built a castle and the foundation turned out to be sand. But it was not our fault, not FBI Portland's fault.
'You can imagine getting a call telling you that the only American subject linked to the Madrid bombings was here in Portland. That's going to get your attention,' Jordan said.
The bungling of the Mayfield case raised suspicions among local Muslims. So has the realization that the FBI infiltrated a local mosque as part of its Portland Seven investigation, said Shahriar Ahmed, president of the Bilal Mosque in Beaverton.
'If the FBI can prove to me that they have sent agents into an evangelical church, or a synagogue, then it would be fair,' Ahmed said. 'But they don't. The bottom line is, we are a pariah community.'
Jordan said the FBI has the authority to infiltrate mosques when necessary.
'We follow leads,' he said. 'If we have a credible reason to think that somebody is involved with criminal or terrorist activity, we're going to do what it takes within the Constitution to follow up. That's what the public expects from us.'
Sten said the public also expects elected officials to make sure that the war on domestic terrorism doesn't lead to civil rights abuses.
'The choice we've been given is cooperate with us under these terms or don't work with us,' Sten said. 'The federal government has made an arbitrary choice to keep civilian oversight out of the process.'
The FBI does have one probable yes vote in Commissioner Dan Saltzman. But the key vote likely will come from Mayor Potter, who has not indicated how he is leaning.