Whatever happened at Pioneer Courthouse Square on the evening of Nov. 26, don’t call it a bombing attempt, says Dan Handelman, the oustpoken organizer behind Portland Copwatch, a project of Peace and Justice Works. Handelman is not about to adopt the narrative of law enforcement to describe an event that is now kicking up dust on more than just the notion of entrapment.
The Nov. 26 FBI sting has rekindled interest in Portland’s involvement in the Portland Joint Terrorism Task Force, which the city withdrew from years ago over secrecy and oversight issues. It was also an issue of putting city police officers in the role of collecting or harboring information on people’s social political or religious affiliations, regardless of any suspected criminal activity.
That’s a situation Handelman knows personally, having been in the Police Bureau’s spy sights himself years ago. So we caught up with the man behind Copwatch and got his thoughts on how the city might proceed as the Pioneer Courthouse Square event ripples to City Hall.
Joanne Zuhl: The situation with the Pioneer Courthouse Square bomb-scare, orchestrated by the FBI and supposedly without PPB knowledge, has Commissioner Dan Saltzman calling for the City Council to revisit its participation in the Joint Terrorism Task Force. It seems any time a so-called terrorist action occurs, the issue flares up. Copwatch has not supported this in the past. What’s the problem with this relationship? What’s at stake for a Portland citizen?
Dan Handelman: The Portland Joint Terrorism Task Force (PJTTF) actually existed before 9/11. In late 2000, we discovered a City Council agenda item that was to renew a contract with the FBI to reimburse the City for costs associated with assigning two officers permanently to the PJTTF, in which it talked about a mission to investigate “right wing and left wing extremists” and listed specific groups such as the Animal Liberation Front. We got many community partners, including the ACLU, in to testify about how Oregon has a state law (181.575), which prohibits law enforcement from collecting or maintaining information on a person’s political, religious or social affiliations without suspicion of criminal conduct. Despite a lot of good testimony, we only succeeded in a few tweaks to the contract including dropping that offensive statement, which then-Commissioner Charlie Hales compared to something Richard Nixon would do.
So, if you don’t want the Portland Police poking about into what groups you hang out with, whether it’s where you pray, what you do for social justice, or what you do for fun, you should be very wary of our rejoining the PJTTF.
J.Z.: Mayor Sam Adams says he has much more faith in the Obama administration and the leadership of the U.S. Attorney General’s office now than he did in 2005, but should he? Has anything really changed?
D.H.: The FBI’s historic and ongoing activities to infiltrate, set up, and arrest (and/or have violence done to) people working for social change has continued, despite their being seriously restricted by the work of the Church Committee in the 1970s. The post-9/11 era has opened up a Pandora’s box of law enforcement abuses. Those abuses did not change between the Bush and Obama administrations, and may be getting worse because (a) Obama’s supporters are reluctant to criticize him and (b) Obama is trying to prove himself to his detractors, so in some ways he’s trying to out-Bush Bush. But no matter who was in the White House, these crimes would likely be taking place because this kind of policy, to put down social movements who seek true justice, has been an American policy since before the Constitution was written.
J.Z.: The FBI has long identified a variety of political dissenters and organizations as potential targets for investigations and surveillance. They’ve recently singled out anarchists as well. How complicit are local police officers in these policies?
D.H.: It’s impossible for me to answer this question, since the activities of the Bureau’s Criminal Intelligence Unit (CIU) only come to light when documents are released after their involvement in an incident. Our group was spied on twice that we know of — once in 1992, soon after we got started, the CIU put two undercover informants at a meeting. The notes from that meeting came up in a trial people refer to as “Moose v. Squirrel,” (because the police chief at the time was Charles Moose) but is really known as “Squirrel v. City of Portland.” Squirrel was part of Copwatch and had been arrested on an unrelated incident. The CIU had the notes from our meeting in a file they kept on Squirrel, which basically reported we talked about a stronger police review board. The judge in the case, Michael Marcus, asked “what possible criminal activity could there be in advocating for a stronger police review board?” and ordered that file be destroyed, that the CIU review its documents for compliance with 181.575 two months after their creation and every two years.
The other time was in 1998, when people were arrested at a protest about Bill Clinton bombing Iraq. My name was listed in the document as “Leader of the Iraq Affinity Group” (another project of Peace and Justice Works, Copwatch’s parent organization) but there was no allegation of criminal misconduct. My efforts to sue the city over that were thrown out of court on a technicality.
J.Z.: In light of the FBI sting, authorities are bound to review their procedures. What is Copwatch on the lookout for during these reassessments and possible changes?
D.H.: The business community has long cried foul since Mayor Potter removed us from the PJTTF in 2005, as has Dan Saltzman, the only Council member to vote to stay on the Task Force. We’re already hearing these voices and others misrepresenting not only the reasons Potter pulled out of the PJTTF, but the nature of the Council action.
The reality is that a resolution was passed that explained how Portland would work with any federal task force where there are security clearance issues … in the case of the PJTTF the officers were granted “Top Secret” clearance but the Chief and the Mayor could only get “secret” clearance. The City Attorney, who would have to advise the officers whether or not their actions were legal under Oregon law, was not offered any clearance, if I remember correctly.
So we should be very aware that this topic could be back on the City Council agenda, and your organization, whether it’s a labor union, a peace group, a house of worship or, say, a newspaper that caters to people living on the streets, should be ready to tell City Council not to cave in to fear, and to follow the law and ensure accountability.
J.Z.: With the above in mind, and with the latest activity of the FBI regarding Muhamed Osman Muhamud, should the city call for full disclosure on who and what organizations the FBI is investigating in Portland- and why?
D.H.: If you mean full disclosure as in printing a list publicly, I doubt that the FBI would do that with ongoing investigations. If you mean sharing them with people who have the right security clearance or elected officials, I would say that they would have to be sure the City Attorney would be able to look not only at a list but also some evidence as to why the groups or individuals were being monitored. I doubt the FBI will do that, either, but that’s the minimum the City should do.
But realistically, if the FBI is tracking an actual criminal suspect who is planning or committng an actual crime that they (the FBI) did not plan, support and pay for, it’s actually OK with us (and allowed under state law and the Council resolution) for the Portland Police to work with them. We’ve never said not to cooperate with the FBI, we’re just saying do so in a way that doesn’t violate people’s rights and actually focuses on real crimes, not inneundo, fairy tales or the bravado statements of an angry teenager.