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FBI, Potter both made bad calls

Neither the FBI nor Portland Mayor Tom Potter inspired public confidence with their confrontation last week. The FBI's bungled attempt to infiltrate City Hall was laughable in its ineptitude, while the mayor's over-the-top reaction to the federal intrusion left citizens wondering whether Potter has something to hide. We don't yet see evidence of either massive municipal corruption or high-level federal conspiracy. What is apparent, however, is that federal and city relations are as strained as they've ever been.

The initial mistake was committed by the FBI agent who tried, with all the subtlety of a Barney Fife, to recruit a City Hall employee as a mole within Portland government. What the agent hoped to discover is unclear, but we shudder to think that this is the same agency that's supposed to be on alert for internal threats of terrorism.

While we recognize that the FBI routinely investigates alleged incidences of official corruption, that shouldn't be the bureau's primary role in Oregon. Surely, with all the dangers of the modern world and vile criminal activities occurring right here in Oregon, an FBI agent has better ways to spend his time than trying to manipulate a City Hall employee.

Whether the FBI is concerned about its public image or simply an effective use of its time, the attempted City Hall sting was just plain dumb. But stupidity isn't illegal, and that's why Potter's vitriolic response seemed out of proportion to the FBI's offense. The mayor called a news conference to slam the FBI and posted an open letter to Portlanders on his Web site. In a curious display of apparent paranoia, the mayor even had his office swept for bugs.

Potter's defensive reaction invites speculation about whether something unsavory is occurring at City Hall. We have no reason to believe that's the case. It's more likely that Potter, when presented with an opportune moment to grandstand, took full advantage. That's the way of politics, but citizens don't have to condone Potter's behavior or the FBI's.

This episode leaves no one safer from either bad guys or spies.