To Be or Not to Be… Part of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force

Tuesday, there was a public meeting, following a contentious City Hall hearing about Portland’s present dilemma over joining the FBI’s Terrorism Task Force (JTTF).

A flier passed out at the event explained:

“The JTTF is a law enforcement unit that uses an inter-agency approach to terrorism,” where “federal and local police cooperate at the direction of the FBI.”

Partnership with the JTTF means…

  • The FBI Special Agent in Charge is responsible for oversight.
  • The FBI deputizes all local JTTF members as special US Marshals.
  • The FBI controls all reports and information.
  • The FBI decides which files to share with non-members at local agencies.
  • The FBI requires all JTTF members to report on developments in their home agencies.
  • The FBI forbids JTTF members from speaking to the press without permission.

This informal gathering (after the city council hearing) was held by the ACLU at the Bijou Cafe downtown.  There were a few familiar faces upon arrival, people I’m happy to see volunteering for the cause, Stasia Brownell (who’d invited me) and Kate Horton.  Even back in high school, these two were some of the hottest, smartest girls around.

Soon, our speaker was introduced, Michael German, policy councilman for the ACLU and former employee of the FBI.

For German, working for the FBI was lifelong dream.  It was 1988 when he became part of the team as an undercover agent.  He specialized in anti-terrorism.

In training, they were told, “if you see any improprieties, report them.”  So, when he began to notice a pattern of behavior – bold violations of our civil liberties – occurring within the FBI, German followed the scripted procedure.

First, he was ignored.  Then they attempted to cover it up.  The retaliation led to German’s ultimate exit from the FBI.  He came to Portland to testify in the hearing, to help stress the importance of the statement we make by NOT becoming a part of what is a badly broken organizational system.

Tuesday’s City Council hearing included a local government panel (members who will vote on the subject Feb. 24th), reps from the Department of Justice, and the General Counsel of the FBI (underscoring the fact that they are more than a little bothered by our resistance to comply).  The elevated importance of this hearing was also evidenced by the attendance of a reporter from the LA Times.

Michael German urged our local leaders to vote NO – stay off the task force, because there are such significant problems with the counter terrorism program.  For example, the issue of “reasonable suspicion”:  Nothing prevents law enforcement from going after innocent people…  They end up targeting immigrants, people of color, and political activists.

“All of us are potential future criminals.”

In the wake of 911, it’s become clear these methods are being used to forward a political agenda.  This translates to a “dilution of standards” and poor management within the FBI.

“We knew about the bad old days,” German said.  He’d thought he was “fortunate for entering the FBI at a time because they knew better.”

He wondered, “if I couldn’t speak out, who could?”

Despite obligations for FBI employees to use due process the way it’s set up, “the system is not designed to succeed,” but rather, to prevent and suppress whistle-blowing.  He told us, “what the FBI was saying, perhaps most annoyingly” at the hearing was, “Portland, you don’t have to worry, we have internal controls.”

Michael German is only one among a long list of FBI whistle-blowers.  It ended their careers with the agency, while misconduct continued.  It is, therefore, no question that “internal controls” are insufficient.

We must demand local representatives to defend our rights as citizens.”

We have several elements to consider…

  • Exigent Letters: The FBI made superfluous promissory notes, false promises to telecom companies, with no due-process follow-through.
  • Total breakdown in the division between government and private companies, creating a casual work-group setting where people are bound by entirely different sets of rules, yet regularly share information.  This developed into a system of illegal activity, where short cuts don’t matter.
  • Over-classification of information is a serious obstacle for getting info where it needs to go…  Even if Portland agencies cooperate, the FBI isn’t required to share.
  • Although it may seem like having someone on the inside is an advantage, the camaraderie that comes from being on a team makes it difficult to rat out other agents, especially when they view themselves as “good guys with good intent.”  This  becomes an enormous problem.
  • The 90-day extension of the Patriot Act is troubling, particularly Section 215, a provision that violates the Fourth Amendment by all0wing searches without a warrant and without probable cause.

Q & A

Q.  How substantial is the JTTF budget?

Before 911, there were less than 50 JTTF divisions.  There are now over 100.  It’s an economic bonanza.

Excess funding means too much time on their hands:  The Inspector General investigated a case, where a young lieutenant with nothing to do went to his boss, who looked out the window at a peaceful demonstration.  The boss said, go investigate them.  This led to illegal surveillance of people at an anti-war rally, plainly engaged in First Amendment protected activities.

Protest = Low Level Terrorism

Q.  Has Eric Holder had an affect on the culture of FBI?

No, because part of the problem is by design.  There’s a 10-year term for FBI director, which means leadership hasn’t changed even under the new administration.

Q.  What’s lacking in oversight?

A lot, “the secrecy is killing us”:

  • Nothing to stop over-classification of info:  “We haven’t lived with a secret government forever,” only post-World War II.  In 2005, they refused to give Mayor (and former police chief) Tom Potter access to classified information, a crucial bargaining point in our decision to remain independent from the JTTF.
  • Nothing to prevent duplication of services.  With numerous quasi-government organizations, the secret intelligence community “is a force within itself.”  There are so many reports, no one can possibly read them all.
  • The need to establish oversight WAS addressed…back in ’78… by creating a secret committee and secret court system!  Unfortunately, said German, “if you can’t tell the public what the problems are, you’ll hardly be able to get them fixed.”
  • FBI employees have no protection from the Whistleblower Protection Act.
  • According to the 911 Commission, the culture of the FBI is part of what led to the catastrophe.  But the shock of 911 meant a surge in general public acceptance of more funding, more authority, and even more power for the FBI.
  • IG Reports, thanks to Atty. Gen. Holder, reveal serious abuse…  But these are merely “cracks in the door.”  When you are able to uncover such issues from just a peek behind the curtain, “that is what we call a clue,” that the bulk of the problems in the organization remain unseen.
  • In reference to the 90-day extension of the Patriot Act, “we don’t even know how our government is interpreting the laws.”  Oregon Senator Ron Wyden is asking the Dept. of Justice for more information regarding the government’s practical interpretation of this legislation.

*For more information, see Top Secret America (Washington Post)

Q.  Given the (sellout) culture in DC, is there any hope?

Policies – emergency measures once complained of – haven’t been rolled back yet.  We have a new normal.  This has profound long-term, degrading effects on democracy.  In the present environment, it doesn’t look good.

Q.  With the case of the bombing attempt at our Christmas tree lighting party in Pioneer Square, to what extent did the FBI lead the guy…?  Isn’t that entrapment?

German couldn’t comment specifically, but expressed general concern about JTTF techniques, especially those used in the recent failed terrorist attack in Portland.  As unlikely as it is, there’s no way to know if the man behind this plot could have gotten as far as he did without FBI hand-holding.  With entrapment, laws and social/cultural standards are very different things.  There appears to be some fuzzy space between vaguely enticing someone, planting the seed of an idea, placing the tools into their hands to make it grow, and what is technically illegal government conduct.

What he could say, when he was in the FBI, “we never built a bomb for anyone.”

To participate in, or collaborate with an organization, one absorbs it’s indiscretions.  Often not knowingly, the individual may betray their own, inner sense of right and wrong.

What’s more important?  Compliance and widespread surveillance… or the principle of freedom from false persecution?  Does the value associated with becoming part of a broken system exceed the value of standing up for civil rights?  Who decides?

We do.

On February 24, Portland City Council will be voting on whether or not the City of Portland should re-enter the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force.  There will be a rally, starting at 12:30pm, speakers at 1pm and at 2pm public testimony is scheduled before the vote.

Now is your chance to contact City Council and tell them what you feel.

Mayor Sam Adams

Amanda Fritz, Commissioner of Public Utilities

Nick Fish, Commissioner of Public Affairs

Randy Leonard, Commissioner of Public Safety

As we bear witness to revolution unfolding in the Middle East, we see the world’s unrelenting movement toward more free and open democracy.  We see people using tools (tools we often use as toys) to organize and share information.

Today, in a world of plenty (yet with irony, full of devastating need) we have more tools that we can count.  With the exponential growth of technology… we live in a world of possibilities that we’ve hardly even begun to dream of.

Informative Transparency = Superior Social Intelligence

Throughout the animal kingdom, we find evidence of social intelligence.  From creatures of the sea, to rodents, birds, canines and primates, this shared trait provides significant advantage (for most individuals within) the species.  Even “simple” organisms like bacteria, in a way that we still do not fully understand, are equipped and regularly demonstrate social intelligence.  Somehow, information about potential threats and energy sources is clearly shared throughout the colony.

It’s kind of like the worldwide web.

Granted, our system has some kinks.  The web is a crowded place, a virtual garbage dump of ideas, where you have to sift through a bunch of crap to find something worth keeping or recycling.  Thanks to rapid evolution, the bacteria have an extreme head start, but now that we’ve developed a quick way to collect and distribute information worldwide, we have a transformational system that will continue to be improved upon.

It is possible that today’s enhanced upheaval in the Middle East is part of a greater shift for us all.  This is why government censorship is so frightening.  It is proof (yet again) of extremely powerful forces at work, that are highly counterproductive to human interests.

Thanks to the world wide web, the internet blackout in Egypt drew our attention, accompanied by an amplified international response which spread like wildfire.  The progressive movement toward more transparent democratic systems continues to cause havoc throughout the region, sending unstoppable ripples of effect around the world.

After the presentation, I hung around for a few minutes.  Several people wanted to know what I was writing about.  I spoke to a veteran, named Joe.  He and the others there like him spend a great deal of their personal energy calling people out – especially our elected officials – on their hypocrisy.  Together, we lamented that he was part of a dying breed.  I want badly to believe this isn’t true and I promised to help carry the torch.   Then I took a minute to ask Mr. German some lingering questions.

I wanted to know if he thought they were making an example out of us.  Here’s what I gleaned:

In 2005, Portland became the first city to back out of the JTTF.   The FBI was less than thrilled with the mayor’s decision.  You might say, they were insulted.

Combining a certain level of resent and a perceptible sense of “idle hands” within the agency (known for corruption) we had the recipe for a manufactured disaster…

Cue terrorist attack in Pioneer Square.

It is disturbing to think that the entire episode may have been orchestrated in order to enhance the framing of debate.  But, given the current state of affairs, it’s not a far cry.

It sounds also a bit like the FBI is just another example of a big business, outsourcing it’s most tedious work to the local partners.

Heading home, I plopped down into middle of the back row on the bus, my favorite seat, by two dudes in black hoodies and baseball caps.  Notebook still in hand, I continued writing, wrestling my heady thoughts of the night.

I heard the boys with hushed voices, chattering next to me.

“She’s probably a genius,” one whispered.  Maybe I heard them wrong – I tried not to look at them.  Instead, I looked for a second at a paper cup that was rolling around near our feet.  Then, somehow cued by the moment my eyes fell onto that piece of trash, they started playing kick with it.

I was reminded, again, of how un-separate we are…  Human beans in a pod!

I laughed out loud.

Then, when everything was perfect, it got better – a well-timed text from my angel, Violet:

“We have pizza”

It made my day!

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