PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) – Four years ago, the city of Portland refused to help the FBI question Middle Easterners in the agency’s hunt for potential terrorists.
City leaders cited Oregon law, which requires police to show a person is suspected of a crime before any questioning.
Now, this predominantly liberal Democratic city finds itself once again faced with deciding whether to part ways with the FBI over how far officers can go when searching for terrorists as part of the federal bureau’s Joint Terrorism Task Force.
City Commissioner Erik Sten says that Portland frequently suffers from a national reputation for taking public policy arguments to extremes.
"There’s this argument that everyone is going to die if we don’t work with this task force, and that’s not true. And there’s this argument that it’s inherently evil if you work with the FBI, and that’s not true either," Sten said.
"I’m being a little facetious," he added, "but to say we’re wrong to say that we’re concerned about a lack of accountability doesn’t hold up. We should be worried about it."
The issue is coming up for a vote under a new mayor who took office only a short time after the much-publicized and controversial arrest of a Portland lawyer whose fingerprints the FBI eventually determined had been mistakenly linked to the terrorist bombings that killed 191 people in Spain last March.
The FBI issued a rare public apology to attorney Brandon Mayfield, a convert to Islam who is suing the government over the mistake.
But the same FBI agent who delivered the apology, Bob Jordan, the special agent in charge of Oregon, points out the agency was proved right for its investigation of the "Portland Seven," a group of Muslims convicted of a conspiracy to aid the Taliban fight U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Six pleaded guilty to avoid trial in U.S. District Court in Oregon while the seventh was killed in fighting overseas. As a result, Jordan said, many important details in the case were not made public despite the convictions and the harsh criticism the FBI endured from the local Muslim community.
"My sense is we had a community up in arms saying, ‘They are after these people and these guys didn’t do these things they said,’" Jordan said.
"We never got a chance to show a jury or the public at large what a great case we had," he said.
Jordan also said the public does not see how much effort the FBI devotes to domestic terrorism, such as the Earth Liberation Front and its record of arson as part of its strategy of "ecoterrorism" to draw attention to environmental issues.
But the main issue facing recently elected Mayor Tom Potter and city commissioners is not criticism of the FBI – it is oversight of the Portland Police Bureau officers assigned to the Joint Terrorism Task Force, a partnership with local law enforcement the FBI has set up in at least 100 cities across the nation, including Portland.
City Commissioner Randy Leonard, a former firefighter, noted the two police officers assigned to the task force have a higher security clearance than the mayor or police Chief Derrick Foxworth – meaning neither the mayor nor the chief can ask the officers about what they’re investigating.
Foxworth says he is comfortable with the arrangement, and he praised Jordan for what he called an "unprecedented" public apology in the Mayfield case along with efforts to improve FBI relationships with groups around the state, from the Muslim community to police agencies.
But Leonard remains skeptical while Potter says he is undecided. The mayor still has not scheduled a vote on renewing task force participation.
"I don’t think the FBI’s Bob Jordan would ever tolerate having his officers engage in activities he couldn’t ask questions about," Leonard said.
"I find it very disrespectful that he doesn’t appreciate that’s the concern I have about our own officers," Leonard said. "We should be able to hold them accountable."
The American Civil Liberties Union has led much of the criticism of the joint task force, urging greater accountability to prevent the abuse of civil liberties that have plagued the FBI in the past, such as spying on Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s.
"I think what we’re seeing on the part of the City Council now is a reflection of those concerns," said Dave Fidanque, ACLU executive director for Oregon.
Will Seaman of Portland Peaceful Response, who has helped organize dozens of political protest marches in Portland over the years, said he believes Mayor Potter, a former police chief, should have a strong role in FBI oversight.
Seaman said the way police handled inauguration day protests against President Bush showed that Potter has already worked to improve the image of a city that earned the nickname "Little Beirut" for its violent outbursts and police response when Bush’s father was president from 1988 to 1992.
But the ACLU says the FBI has used joint task forces across the country to spy on political organizations, religious and peace groups with no evidence of any criminal wrongdoing.
"We might be more amenable to the FBI when they say to us, ‘Yes, we’ve blown it multiple times in the past, so trust us now,’" Fidanque said. "But again, the framers of the Constitution understood that trust had nothing to do with ensuring good government – checks and balances ensure good government."
Shahriar Ahmed, president of the Bilal Mosque Association in suburban Beaverton, said he wishes that top officials such as Jordan would be more vocal about their support of the Muslim community to help the public overcome stereotypes, such as the portrayal of fictional Islamic terrorists in the Fox TV series "24" this season.
"I need people to stand up for us," Ahmed said.