March 07, 2005

Two Myths About The Joint Terrorism Task Force

A Concise Recap Of Our Recent Reporting

This post is a distillation of reporting we've been doing here, and is intended to pull together some basics so readers interested in this subject don't have to hunt for the relevant information. It originally appeared on BlueOregon over the weekend in a very slightly different form.

For the first time in the many years of Portland's participation in the Joint Terrorism Task Force, serious City Council consideration is being given to concerns about the nature and effectiveness of civilian oversight of the activities of Portland Police Bureau officers assigned to the Task Force.

As recently as last Tuesday, the local media has reported on the questions being raised by Commissioner Randy Leonard. Currently under review by Mayor Tom Potter is a proposal from Leonard which would place conditions upon Portland's continued participation in the Task Force.

While the steady pressure exerted for years by civil libertarians finally broke through in 2003 and forced the FBI to give security clearances to Mayor Vera Katz and Chief Derrick Foxworth, critics have argued that the oversight enabled by that development remained something less than adequate. But for all of that concern, very little in the way of detailed information regarding these oversight processes -- or, for that matter, the nature of the authority under which officers are assigned to the Task Force -- has been reported until recent weeks.

Myth #1

Every year in the Fall, news media and activists alike dutifully report that City Council is due to consider reauthorizing Portland's participation in the Task Force. Nearly always missing in those routine announcements is any indication that the issue isn't quite that straightforward.

What comes before City Council every year is what's known as a Memorandum of Understanding, entered into by the City of Portland and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. That agreement is designed to expire after one year, requiring Council specifically to authorize a new one. But normally unmentioned in reports about this annual event is that the MoU actually is irrelevant to the matter of assigning Portland Police Bureau officers to the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

While the MoU invariably does discuss the assignment of officers to the Task Force, the real concern of the agreement is with ancillary matters -- such as any oversight processes or, more mundanely, compensation for any overtime accrued by those officers.

More plainly: Even absent any MoU between the City of Portland and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Chief of Police has the authority to assign officers to the Joint Terrorism Task Force as he sees fit, because the Chief has the authority to assign officers "to the benefit of the City".

This, simply, is precisely why the City of Portland today continues to have officers assigned to the Joint Terrorism Task Force despite the fact that the most recent Memorandum of Understanding between the City and the Federal Bureau of Investigation expired last September.

So there's Myth #1 about the City's participation in the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

Authorizing a new Memorandum of Understanding -- which is what's at issue before Council each and every year -- is not necessary in order for officers to be assigned to the Task Force, and therefore the traditional debate over the MoU in essence is a deeply incomplete one.

Myth #2

Beyond the lost fact that no MoU is required in order for Portland Police Bureau officers to be assigned to the Joint Terrorism Task Force, another aspect of Portland's participation has been left largely unexamined: The precise nature of the oversight processes put into place when Mayor Vera Katz and Chief Derrick Foxworth received their security clearances from the Federal government.

What has been reported on numerous occasions is that while the officers assigned to the Task Force receive "top secret" clearances, the Mayor and Chief receive only "secret" clearances -- bringing into obvious question just how much oversight can be provided when those at the top of the Bureau's chain of command do not have access to the same information available to the officers they are meant to be overseeing.

But what has not been been reported are the precise details of what, if any, procedures were put into place in order for the Mayor and the Chief to exercise what little oversight authority their lesser security clearances grant them.

As it turns out, those procedures are governed by a document entitled, "Mayor's PJTTF Oversight Protocol", established when Vera Katz was in office. That document spells out an oversight process which mainly consists of two elements:

  • Quarterly briefings by the Special Agent-in-Charge of the Portland office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation on "issues involving the Portland officers assigned to the JTTF based on a need to know basis".
  • Monthly briefings by the Chief of Police or the Assistant Chief of Investigations "to assure compliance with Oregon law".

Which prompts the question: Just how can either the Chief or the Mayor know whether or not the assigned officers are in compliance with Oregon law, since their security clearance is significantly lower than that given to the officers themselves?

Technically, it also prompts another question: How can the Assistant Chief of Investigations provide that briefing at all, since he or she does not receive any security clearance from the Federal government? In turn, that question only prompts still one more: If an Assistant Chief without any Federal security clearance can provide this briefing, doesn't that mean that the much-ballyhooed security clearances are little more than window dressing, and entirely irrelevant to what the Chief can or cannot do in terms of oversight?

The answers to these questions appear to be contained in the fact that the assigned officers, under the Oversight Protocol, are required to provide a monthly memo to the Chief of Police certifying "that each officer has received training on ORS 181.575 and ORS 181.850 and is operating within ORS 181.575 and ORS 181.850 for work performed while assigned to the JTTF". That certification then is passed by the Chief to the Mayor.

In other words, the only oversight provided by either the Chief or the Mayor appears to be the acceptance of a memorandum from the assigned officers.

Fundamentally, the entire oversight process established by former Mayor Vera Katz is built upon the foundation of the assigned officers' self-certification that their activities are in compliance with the provisions of ORS 181.575 and ORS 181.850. The security clearances obtained by the Mayor and the Chief would appear to be rather irrelevant to the mere acceptance of a memo.

So there's Myth #2 about the City's participation in the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

Until and unless we know the details of the training in ORS 181.575 and ORS 181.850 provided to JTTF-assigned officers by the City Attorney's office, we know absolutely nothing about the oversight processes put into place by former Mayor Vera Katz, under which our participation in the Task Force has operated for the past year.

As of this writing:

Despite the importance of the JTTF debate, our state's newspaper of record has yet to report on any of these specifics, instead relegating itself, through its editorial board, to omission of the facts and abuse of its op-ed page.

Mayor Potter has been reviewing the proposal by Commissioner Leonard, and reportedly seeks to have discussions with the "key players" before Leonard brings it forward.

City Council consideration of Portland's participation in the Joint Terrorism Task Force has not yet been scheduled.

The Deputy City Attorney responsible for providing JTTF-assigned officers with training on ORS 181.575 and ORS 181.850 still has not responded to messages seeking information about that training.

« Previous Next »