• illustration by alex despain
Bowing to community discomfort, as well as their own unease, Mayor Charlie Hales and three city commissioners have vowed to rethink the city's role in an FBI-led anti-terrorism task force as soon as this fall—another potential turnabout in what's been a years-long saga over the protection of Portlanders' civil liberties.

The promise came during a 3-2 vote to accept Police Chief Mike Reese's skimpy report—the third he's compiled—on the Portland Police Bureau's work with the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force. The city had pulled out of the JTTF altogether back in 2005—only to strike up a formal agreement for case-by-case work with the JTTF in 2011.

Commissioner Nick Fish was first to propose taking a fresh look at that arrangement. He was troubled, like most of his colleagues, that Hales had been denied "secret" security clearance—one of the terms of the city's unique arrangement with the feds and the same clearance given to the cops Hales is supposed to oversee.

Fish also said the council should stop using doubts about Reese's report as a forum for "shadowboxing" around a more substantial policy issue. His call was embraced during a public debate by Hales and Commissioners Steve Novick and Amanda Fritz, both of whom voted to reject the report.

"Let's call it a troubled marriage," Fish said of the city and the feds, suggesting the parties could either tough it out "for the kids," divorce, or seek counseling.

He's willing to try for the latter, he said, based on new information shared by Hales this morning. Hales, last week, blamed the FBI's former regional chief for the refusal of his bid for clearance. He confirmed today that he already has an appointment later this month with the new special agent in charge.

"Sometime this summer, you let us know about how that is going," Fish, the first of his colleagues to vote on the report and speak, told the mayor. "If you believe the relationship is not functioning at the level you need as the commissioner in charge [of the police bureau], then I would suggest in early fall you bring back the question of our participation."

Fish was backed in short order by Novick and Fritz, even though they disagreed with his embrace of a report many activists and others have found lacking and full of unanswered questions. Both said the city's work with the JTTF was supposed to be rooted in the spirit of transparency.

"I'd be tempted to call it a dog and pony show," Novick said of the report, "except there's no dog and no pony."

Fritz says she's since received some private assurances that our police officers are working with the FBI under the bounds of the law and in a limited fashion. But that's not good enough, she says, if the public isn't similarly reassured.

Reese's report, like previous versions, doesn't talk about the types of investigations our officers work on, precisely how many, and whether the chief waved off any requests for help. The report also relies on Reese's personal assurance—absent the mayor having clearance—that everything's above board.

"We need another forum to have a discussion to see if the current collaborative agreement is the way to go," Fritz said.

Hales, referring to the current deal with the feds as an "awkward twilight," also said he "agreed with the comments my colleagues have made." He said he didn't craft the current deal and called it "unsatisfactory." He's previously called himself "satisfied" that our cops have worked within the bounds of the law, and he reiterated the clear need, in select cases, to share information between the police bureau and the FBI.

But he copped to some "deep concerns" and promised to take up the disconnect over his clearance when he meets with the new FBI boss in town, and then "indeed report back" this summer. He also made another promise.

"I very much expect," Hales said, "this is the very last report of this type the council will be asked to vote on."

Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch, who first noticed the JTTF agreement on the council's no-discussion "consent" agenda more than a decade ago, wasn't happy Reese didn't get called in to answer some of the report's unanswered questions and that the report was accepted.

He was much happier to hear Hales would report back mid-year if he's refused secret clearance again.

"I'm also very encouraged by the promise to come back and have a discussion," he said.

Meanwhile, the commissioner who first launched this latest go-round over the JTTF—making a bold call for full re-entry after the Pioneer Courthouse Square bombing plot in 2010—was conspicuously quiet. Dan Saltzman said only "aye" when it was time to vote on the report. He didn't address Fish's or Hales' issues.

After the council meeting, I grabbed him in the hallway and asked him his thoughts about a new JTTF discussion this fall.

"I'm open to that," he said. "Whatever they decide, I'm willing to listen."