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Terror task force awaits Portland officers

City's participation in FBI group hinges on ill-defined legal term
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Alaina Melville of the Oregon Progressive Party and others protested at Portland City Hall last week in opposition to rejoining the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

Even while security experts warn that Al Qaeda will try to avenge the May 1 death of Osama bin Laden, it is unclear how soon Portland police officers will be ready to participate in FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force activities.

The day after bin Laden was killed in Pakistan, local FBI spokeswoman Elizabeth Steele said that the potential for groups to act against the United States has prompted the FBI and its Portland-area law enforcement partners to strengthen 'efforts to gather and analyze intelligence.'

'While there are no specific, bin Laden-related threats at this time, every logical and prudent step is being taken to mitigate any developing threats,' Steele said.

According to Steele, the Portland Police Bureau has always had a seat on the Joint Terrorism Task Force executive board. But it could take weeks or months before officers begin participating in its regular intelligence briefings. And under the terms of a resolution approved by the Portland City Council on April 28, Police Chief Mike Reese and Mayor Sam Adams must approve the investigations they join on a case-by-case basis.

Officers assigned to the terrorism task force will come from the Portland Police Bureau's Criminal Intelligence Unit. But the bureau must first adopt 'standard operating procedures' for the officers to follow - a time-consuming, bureaucratic process. The officers also must secure FBI security clearances before they can receive the confidential information discussed by the terrorism task force, and getting such clearance also takes time.

The extent of Portland's future participation in the task force hinges on a term with no legal meaning: 'criminal nexus.'

The term is included in the resolution authorizing members of the Portland Police Bureau to serve on the task force. It is intended to limit their role only to those investigations involving terrorist-related crimes, as defined by federal law.

But as was revealed during the council hearing on the resolution, the term is not defined by any law or law enforcement agency rule. Instead, it was crafted by Commissioner Randy Leonard and Assistant City Attorney Ellen Osoinach as a unique term to be interpreted by the police commissioner and police chief when deciding whether to assign officers to task force investigations.

'What we're doing here is setting forth the conditions under which (the FBI) can access city resources,' Leonard explained at the hearing.

The term was only introduced in the final draft of the resolution released late on April 26, less than 48 hours before the hearing. Its unusual nature emerged late in the approximately four-hour hearing. Portland attorney Mark Kramer, a member of the liberal National Lawyers Guild, raised the issue while testifying.

'Its meaning is not known, vague, not precise,' Kramer said, asking the council to postpone voting on the resolution so he could study it further.

The council declined to delay its vote and unanimously approved the resolution shortly after Kramer finished testifying. Before the vote, Mayor Sam Adams promised that the meaning of the term would be clarified in the standard operating procedures.

The resolution approved by the council is intended to prevent Portland police officers from working on investigations motivated by politics or immigration status. Oregon law, in fact, prohibits those types of investigations.

The resolution also requires officers to report any violations of those laws to the police chief, who must notify the mayor. Annual reports will be compiled and released about federal requests for assistance and their results.

Some critics are swayed

Despite the ongoing controversy, the resolution was supported by Oregon U.S. Attorney Dwight Holton and the Oregon chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Both the ACLU and Holton were involved in negotiating the deal. The resolution also won qualified support from Brandon Mayfield, the Washington County attorney erroneously arrested by the FBI as a material witness in an international terrorism investigation in 2004. Mayfield applauded the council's efforts to limit Portland police participation to bona fide criminal investigations, although he thought the language could be stronger.

Also backing the plan were the Portland Business Alliance and its affiliated organization, the Citizens Crime Commission. Their representatives testified that participation in the task force will make Portland safer while also protecting civil rights and liberties.

Others, however, remained dissatisfied with the compromise. Community activist Jo Ann Bowman said the 'criminal nexus' term gives too much discretion to the police chief and commissioner. She worried that, although Adams and current Police Chief Mike Reese might prioritize civil rights, future mayors and chiefs might not.

Some at the hearing also complained about the relatively short amount of time available to study the final version of the resolution. They included Alaina Melville of the Oregon Progressive Party, which helped organize a demonstration outside City Hall in opposition to the resolution.

'I think they rushed it on purpose, so people wouldn't know what's going on,' she said.

The approval of the resolution is the latest twist in the city's 13-year history with the Portland Joint Terrorism Task Force. The FBI began establishing task forces with state and local governments in 1979. Portland joined the local one in 1998, loaning officers for terrorism-related investigations. Former Portland Mayor Tom Potter convinced the council to pull out of the task force in 2005, complaining that, as police commissioner, he could not adequately supervise the officers assigned to it.

The issue resurfaced in late November when the FBI arrested 19-year-old Mohamed Osman Mohamud on charges of plotting to bomb the annual Christmas tree-lighting ceremony in Pioneer Courthouse Square. Reese was notified of the investigation only a few days before the Nov. 26 event. Adams was not briefed until after the arrest.