On February 13, the Portland City Council voted 3-2 to sever ties with the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF). Portland had previously left the JTTF in 2005, but rejoined in 2015. Grassroots activists campaigned long and hard for this second, and hopefully final, severing of ties. Jo Ann Hardesty, who recently became Portland’s first black female commissioner, also made leaving the JTTF a priority. Of particular concern to activists and the City Council was the participation of Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) in the JTTF and the FBI’s long history of targeting the Muslim community.
JTTFs are run by the FBI and thus usually operate under the Attorney General’s Guidelines, which serve as the FBI’s “rules.” However, JTTF are staffed in part by local police. Opponents of JTTFs have pointed out that state or local laws protecting civil liberties, civil rights, and privacy are often far more stringent than the Attorney General’s Guidelines. As a result, local law enforcement operating under the command of the FBI could very likely be engaging in activities that violate state or local law.
Mike German, a former FBI agent who now works with the Brennan Center, highlighted the discrepancies between Oregon law and the FBI’s rules during testimony before the Portland City Council. As German pointed, Oregon law requires police have “reasonable indication” that a subject of investigation has engaged in criminal activity. The FBI used to operate under similar restrictions, but standards were increasing lowered after 9/11.
The FBI currently operated under guidelines put in place in January 2008 by George W. Bush’s lame duck Attorney General. These guidelines allow the FBI to open an “assessment” so long as they have an “authorized purpose.” This is an expansive authority and assessments can be opened against individuals in order to coerce them into becoming informants. Assessment allow for intrusive investigative techniques, such as physical surveillance or use of informants.
Portland is now one of two cities that have separated from the JTTF. San Francisco left the JTTF after the election of Donald Trump amidst concerns as to how the Islamophobic president might further exacerbate the FBI’s already disturbing propensity to target the Muslim community. San Francisco had previously amended its memorandum of understanding to mandate that local police follow local laws, not the Attorney General’s Guidelines, when acting as JTTF agents.
Given the FBI’s persistent surveillance of activists, its targeting of the Muslim community, and overly permissive guidelines, Defending Rights & Dissent strongly supports the effort of municipalities to break with the JTTF.