City's split: fear for safety vs. fear for rights

Portland, Ore., keeps its police in anti-terror pact with FBI, but dissent persists.

Dan Handelman never did like the idea that the local police department would join hands with the FBI's office here in Portland to take part in a "joint terrorism task force."

To him, it amounted to "federalization of the police." And who, exactly, would be considered a terrorist, he wondered.

But if Mr. Handelman, a self-appointed crusader for police accountability and founder of Portland Copwatch, had hoped to persuade the City Council to drop out of the pact, he would have stood a far better chance if the vote had come before Sept. 11.

But it didn't. It came Oct. 3, and with cities across the US trying to ensure they will not be the next New York, Portland's decision to renew its participation in the joint terrorism task force (JTTF) was all but assured. A vote today is expected to make the decision final.

Though the question is resolved for another year, the issue is by no means settled in the minds of many here. As the US moves to expand the program beyond the 34 cities that now belong to JTTFs, the debate between those who fear for their safety and those who fear for their rights is likely to be repeated in cities far from Portland. Soon, every federal district will have one.

The program, ironically, has its genesis in New York. A task force was created there in 1979 between police and the FBI, later growing to include other organizations. A key feature of these task forces is that they pave the way for local police officers to be deputized as FBI agents to investigate acts of criminal terrorism.

Portland's own JTTF was formed in 1997 and includes, in addition to Portland police, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, US Customs, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and other agencies.

In Portland, a city big enough to hold both Western-style libertarians and bona fide liberals, the debate has been spirited - on both sides. Testimony consumed two hearings spread over six hours.

One of those testifying for staying in the JTTF was Terry Daley, a small, bespectacled woman who looks more like a librarian than someone who would be in a sniper's scope. But Ms. Daley, a counselor at the Downtown Women's Center, which provides abortions, has had bullets pierce her workplace windows. At the hearing, she told the City Council that the JTTF has made the clinic safer by teaching staff members the difference between legitimate protesters and dangerous ones. The center now receives alerts when high-profile leaders come to town, and it has a list of emergency contacts.

Others who spoke in favor of JTTF participation included medical-research facilities and timber-industry representatives who've been threatened with violence or had property damaged by hard-core animal-rights and environmental groups.

That is the kind of "domestic terrorism" Portland's JTTF was originally expected to address. Now, a much darker cloud hangs over the debate.

As a result, opposition to Portland police involvement in the JTTF was muted. (Of 21 unions originally opposing renewal, five actually testified.) Still, groups like the ACLU of Oregon, Japanese American Citizens League, NAACP of Portland, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and others still opposed renewing task-force participation.

Opponents worry that deputizing Portland police as federal agents breaks a crucial link of civilian oversight: When Portland police officers create files for the JTTF, those files become property of the FBI, and no one can access them. This, critics say, circumvents Oregon law requiring files on noncriminal activity to be regularly purged.

Steve Sherlag, a local lawyer who testified against the JTTF, fears the worst. "This is the kind of path that led to McCarthyism in America," he says, a reference to the 1950s crusade led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy to blackball suspected communists. Since the attacks on Sept. 11, he added, "there has been a movement to quash dissent in this country. There's been a movement to label people who question the military response as un-American." People who are protesting the US government's approach "can expect that they're going to be investigated by the FBI and the Portland Police Bureau's JTTF."

This is opponents' other concern: In the war on terror, who will be considered a terrorist?

City Commissioner Erik Sten shares these worries, but he nonetheless voted to renew the Portland police's role in the task force. If the vote had come Sept. 10, he says, he would have voted the other way.

"It definitely had an impact on me," says Mr. Sten of the attacks. "Last year, there was a lot of testimony, which I tended to find credible, that there really wasn't much of a terrorist threat in places like Portland. This year it's obvious there's a terrorist threat."

As for civil liberties, Sten says, "I'm nervous about it. But I'm also nervous about the safety of the city.... With this kind of threat, I do want to see more aggressive pursuit of some of these issues."

At the end of the second day of testimony, the vote came down 4-to-1 for staying in the JTTF.

Some in Portland may sleep better knowing this, but Handelman, for one, remains convinced that this is a first step in whittling away his liberties. "Regardless of whether there is real terrorism or not," he says, "a task force that has such an ill-defined mission, and which keeps information secret from society, is a danger to civil rights."

Sherlag, too, is unwavering amid the heightened tensions and threats. "The natural feeling is, 'I want to be safe,' " he says. "I mean, I want my wife to be safe. I want my daughter to be safe. But at what cost?"

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