When Portland's Joint Terrorism Task Force faced its biannual reauthorization in late September, activists packed City Hall to voice their complaints. Their primary argument was that the Task Force was being used less to investigate terrorism cells and more as a J. Edgar Hoover-type of tool to monitor activists and pry into citizens' private lives. Now, even with ongoing inquiries into the FBI's effectiveness and against continuing pressure from local citizens to curtail surveillance, the Task Force has grown threefold--from 15 to 40 agents.

"It is not so much a decision as a request by the government," explained Beth Ann Steele, an FBI spokesperson who would not indicate exactly which governmental branch--federal, state, or local--she was referring to. With answers as clear and concrete as smoke, Steele eluded providing any definitive information about the Task Force's current mission and need for expansion.

Even when asked whether the number of Portland officers involved had changed, she repeated several times, "Their scope of involvement hasn't changed." (The number of Portland officers remains at nine; the increase comes from an addition of FBI, Secret Service, INS and possibly CIA agents.)

Asked what accomplishments 40 full-time agents--as many as a medium-sized business--have produced, Steele was unable to indicate any real work product. "I simply cannot discuss that," reiterated Steele. Even the Assistant U.S. Attorney, who would be the government agent in charge of prosecution, could only point to two court cases that resulted from efforts by the local Task Force--one a felony firearm possession and fraud case, and two, the prosecution of several men for cheating on their English proficiency tests.

The Task Force is the local stage for the Bush Administration's fight against terrorism. Last Wednesday, President Bush announced a plan to create a $37 billion federal agency for homeland security. The announcement came on the very same day that Coleen Rowley, a whistle-blower from the FBI's Minneapolis branch, testified in front of a Senate Subcommittee that the FBI, under crushing bureaucracy, inaction and ineptitude, had failed to produce viable protections from terrorism threats.

The further concern about the Task Force is that federal agents--unlike Portland police officers--have wider latitude to conduct undercover operations and unbridled surveillance. In recent weeks, Attorney General John Ashcroft has pushed to widen these allowances to include wire taps and home searches without search warrants.